Navel Gazing and the Coronavirus

Usually when I call my kids and they don’t answer, I assume it’s because they’re talking to the CEO of their company or on the subway or flying to San Francisco for some real sour dough bread… something logical and believable. 

Now, with isolating in place, I know the awful truth: their cell phone batteries need recharging.

I’ve been eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner for two weeks now: my own cooking. 

On the other hand, I’ve been binge-watching Twilight Zone, Mash, Gomer Pyle, Cheers, 30 Rock, and dozens of other old TV shows on channels like METV, COZI and H&I, which is fun.  

Of course binge-watching these TV channels takes a lot more perseverance than watching Netflix, Prime, or Apple – “streaming services” – that weren’t considered possible in even in The Twilight Zone. Nope. This kind of binge-watching involves setting the alarm, ignoring phone calls… staying awake… 

The good news is I don’t have to skip bathroom breaks; these old TV shows have commercial breaks which are filled with pharmaceutical commercials. That’s because the (other) viewers are old and great consumers of drugs.

The commercials don’t offer help with the Coronavirus. Sadly.  

The good guys always won in those shows. There’s something heartening about that, about good always winning over evil.

These shows have also been fun because, when they first ran, I was either working late or letting my kids control the TV (it was easier than arguing and I was really tired!) And because I’m isolating without grandkids, no one laughs at me for watching these shows. Good vs evil is so old school.

Who ever figured that, with all the advances in medicine that we’d be doing what cavemen did: hiding in our caves from the enemy?  

Who ever figured that, after centuries of bending nature to our will, humans would be the only things in nature to suffer from this pandemic?

Sometimes I imagine animals, plants, insects, fish – all parts of nature we overpowered – watching us with a  “Payback is so-o-o-o much fun!” smirk on their faces.

Do you suppose buffalo, for example, which were killed by the hundreds of thousands, are laughing a little right now? “Hey Corona! I hear you really got those humans! Cool!”

Do you suppose that human beings, just about the only species who kill for the fun of it, are being killed by an enemy for the fun of it?

So much irony, so little time. 

We humans evolved into the ultimate pack animals. But now the only way to be safe is to unpack – to isolate. Sticking together, the trait that has always helped us survive and conquer, is now helping the enemy kill us. 

As a result of working together, humans have been able to over-consume natural resources and cause Climate Change, but in so doing, create the most powerful human enemy yet, viruses.

Gollye-e-e-e, Gomer!

On the other, other, hand, we’re a lot more capable of dealing with this pandemic than we might have been even ten years ago, because an evolution we created has given us a lot of tools we never had, tools that will help preserve our packability.

We can “tele-doctor” instead of going to the doctor’s office. We can “tele-work” and “tele-meet”, while wearing business tops and pajama bottoms. We can “tele-school” and actually show the teacher the dog that ate the homework.  We can “tele-friend”, even across continents – and with software to translate different languages. 

We can gather together via Zoom, Skype, Face-Time. We can attend business meetings, concerts, religious services, even family dinners (and, if the computer is positioned right, we can even skip the broccoli). 

We can do everything but touch each other. And not being able to touch each other is not much of a sacrifice when you consider the alternative.

Maybe self-isolating isn’t all so bad, after all. It gives us a break to do a little navel-gazing. 

And thinking about how we got here.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

The Human Touch In A Time of Isolation

In an earlier life as a producer/director, I did a piece on an old folks home. 

As the crew and I were criss-crossing the place shooting “B-roll”, we saw an old couple sitting in the sun, holding each other’s hand on the surface of a table, dignified and content, but not conversing. The unspoken intimacy was arresting.

When I asked to get a shot of them, the woman nodded OK. When we passed by a second time and saw them still quietly holding hands, I asked if they would do an interview. She smiled and shook her head.

We saw them several times that afternoon and each time they were silently holding hands, looking peaceful and grounded. 

They are in their own world, I thought, happy together. They had clearly said everything they needed to say to each other and had experienced everything they needed to experience with each other, except for one more touch of the other’s hand.

I thought of them today as I hunkered down in the face of the Coronavirus.

We are are pack animals, you and I, along with the rest of humanity. We band together in times of joy and sorrow, peace and war. If you doubt me, check other pack animals, dogs for instance. Their version of holding hands is snuggling, especially when they’re sleeping. Humans do that, as well as hug and hold hands. We put an arm around a shoulder, slap a buddy on the back, high five each other, etc. Touch is part and parcel of being human.

Shaking hands, which began hundreds of years ago to demonstrate not having a weapon, is second nature. Or was, until now. Elbow bumping is the new handshake – Oops!- or was. Now, even that is discouraged because it breaks the six foot rule.

Something as natural and instinctive as holding hands – with your lover, your child, your grandparent, your friend – taken away by this pandemic. Wow.

Of course, that won’t bother non-touchers, germaphobes, for example, or landed gentry types. Or people from cold climates. My guess is they don’t hold hands a lot in Arctic, but who knows? Maybe they just keep their gloves on and go for it. 

In old western movies, instead of shaking hands, Native Americans – “Indians” – would hold one hand at ear height, palm facing out, and say “How”. Please note: it was not “How?” or “How!”;  just plain “How”.  

I have no idea if that was a real custom or something thought up by Hollywood, but it was in a lot of movies.

When I was a kid, Bob Hope starred in a movie called Pale Face. At one point an “Indian” holds his hand up to Hope and says, “How”. 

Hope says: “-do you do?!” 

I thought that was about as funny as funny gets. (OK, you can laugh, too. No-one will ever know.)

Maybe “How” could replace the handshake! Um, No.

Until we conquer the Coronavirus, the human touch will be a thing of the past, like the two-step or “bussing” (that’s kissing in old people talk). 

I don’t have any great ideas for what could replace the human touch, especially with the six foot rule. I guess we’ll all have to use our words better than we once did. Maybe a few more “I love you’s” would help. But that’s very one-dimensional. The human touch covers so much more.

One night, when my oldest daughter was about five, her mother and I were putting her to bed. “I love you”, we said as we turned out the lights. 

“I love you”, she replied, as usual.

Then, emphatically, “And I like you!”

That touched us almost as much as one of her hugs. It’s been a family saying ever since. 

I’m not suggesting it as a replacement for holding hands or an arm around a shoulder, or an old fashioned kiss. But using words like that might be a start. 

Beyond that, I guess I’ll just remember the intimacy of an elderly couple quietly holding hands in an afternoon sun.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

The Evolution of Pandemics

Long before the Coronavirus or the “Wuhan Virus”, as our Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, calls it, or Trump calling it the “China Flu”, there were other pandemics. 

The bubonic plague hit the Eastern Roman Empire in 542, killing between 25 million and 50 million people. They called it the Plague of Justinian after emperor at the time, Justinian I

(Pay attention, Xi Jinping)

In 1347 it returned and killed one third of the European population. That’s 18 million people. It wasn’t named for one person, though. People had become more sophisticated. They blamed it on a whole people, the Mongols. 

In those days they tossed, not just dead bodies into rivers, but the near dead, too. 

They might have called it the Flea Plague or the Rat Plague, but the part fleas and rats played in spreading it wasn’t discovered until 2002. 

It could also have been called The Italian Plague, blaming Italians who, in fleeing the pandemic, carried it with them throughout Europe. 

(Are you reading this, Michael Pompeo and Donald Trump?)

It came back for a third time in 1900 or so, starting, according to some reports, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. That resulted in The Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese were easy to blame, already known as “The Yellow Peril” for working for low wages on the California railroads as well as the Sonoma wineries. 

That pandemic stumbled around the world for years via sea ports (sailors, you know). It sputtered out 347 miles down the coast in Los Angeles in 1924, the start of the LA movie industry, which some call a plague even today. 

A few years earlier, as WWI ended, the Spanish Flu arrived, infecting 500 million people, 27% of the world population, and killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million, or 5%; the ability to document deaths hadn’t improved much in 1500 years, probably because people were dying and being buried faster other people could count them.

Spain was tagged with that pandemic because it hit Spain really hard. Today’s historians think it really started in Etaples, France or at a British Army base in Ft. Riley, Kansas.

Or in Northern China, from where Chinese laborers brought it to Europe when they were recruited to replace European workers who had gone into the WWI military. We could rename it The Chinese Flu, I suppose. That would certainly get Spain off the hook.

A common denominator of pandemics has always been fear and abuse of the sick. There were no cures, so self-protection became the brutal and only way to survive.

Wars or other natural disasters bring people together as the best way to survive. Pandemics do the opposite; people separate to survive.  The lack of stories about the Spanish flu, historians believe, is because the survivors were deeply ashamed of how viciously they treated the sick. 

News stories emerging from Italy today tell of healthcare workers leaving the sickest Coronavirus patients unattended in order to save others. They tell of mortuary workers refusing to pick up the dead bodies for days out of fear of catching the virus. 

There are differences and similarities between our Coronavirus pandemic and previous pandemics. Some US leaders, like Governor Cuomo of New York and almost all other state governors, are encouraging people to help each other as they self-isolate. Others blame the evil Nancy Pelosi and the even evil-er Washington Post and New York Times for faking the whole thing.

There are news stories about lines forming outside of gun shops as people stock up on extra guns. There are also news stories of restaurants around the country donating meals to people.  

Another difference, and this may be the game changer, is communication. In previous pandemics, people who self-isolated lost contact with each other, adding to fear and abuse of the sick. Their means of communication were limited to smoke signals, semafores, carrier pigeons and, at best, morse code. 

Unlike all those past pandemics, today we have cell phones, radio, TV, streaming, and social media. So we can connect with each other even as we separate from each other. We can use all this technology to assuage fear, to direct medical help, to pass laws for financial help, to provide everything from food to succor, to give each other sympathy, laughs, stability, and hope. 

To physically isolate, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually unite.

We can evolve from the horror and brutality of past pandemics. The question is: will we?

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

The bright side of Coronavirus

Yes, it’s killing people. Yes, it’s crashing stock markets. Yes it’s destroying economies. Yes, it’s reminding everyone of the 1918 flu. 

But there are positives. 

Take Facebook for example. Sure Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins. Sure he has used it to monopolize and monetize your personal information. And sure, there’s virtually nothing you can do about it. 

But while you’re sitting alone in forced or self-imposed quarantine because of the Coronavirus, you don’t have to feel like you’re in a prison cell. You can use Facebook to communicate with your friends. You can twitter, maybe even with your President. You can connect through Instagram, Tinder, and TicTok. You can shop at numerous stores including the local grocery and connect with others in a wide variety of ways.  

Compare that to being quarantined back in 1918 without computers, cell phones, and the internet. Now that was isolation.

OK, calling that a positive may be a stretch. But there are other bright spots, particularly in politics.

The President’s statements about the US having plenty of “beautiful” test kits and that anyone who wants to be tested can be, are now exposed are infantile lies. 

Right now there are around 1 or 2 million Corona test kits for a population of 320 million. That’s one reason people who think they might have the virus can’t get tested by their doctor or, better yet, by an at-home test kit from the drugstore. Nope. Anyone who has cold symptoms with a high fever and a dry cough, has to first call country or state authorities for permission to be tested, then, if tests are available, be tested, which will take 48 to 72 hours, allowing plenty of time to infect others. And, many of the tests are not “beautiful”; they have produced false results. 

According to Atlantic Magazine, as of 4:00 PM Monday, March 9, only 4384 people in the US have been tested. “By this point in its outbreak, South Korea had tested more than 100,000 people for the disease, and it was testing roughly 15,000 people every day. The United Kingdom, where three people have died of COVID-19, has already tested more than 24,900 people.”

What’s worse, Europe could have sold us tons of tests that did work – four months ago, in December – but our government’s policy was to refuse to buy them. Instead they took weeks just to design their own – flawed tests – and weeks more to produce them and put them to work protecting the country. So now a lot more people than might have are going to catch the virus than would have, pointing a finger directly at Trump’s policies and incompetence.

Good for Democrats; bad for Republicans.

Because health care is so expensive, many poorer people in the US will not seek it during this pandemic. They will get sick and possibly die, not to mention spreading it, increasing public pressure for a wider, less expensive healthcare system.

Good for Democrats; bad for Republicans.

Because few Americans are paid when they are on sick leave, especially in this gig economy, many are less likely to stay home and self-quarantine if they are sick, thereby spreading the disease as well as risking their own health. As a result, voters will be more interested in a candidate who supports paid sick leave.

Good for Democrats; bad for Republicans.

Because of the Trump Administration’s policies toward illegal immigrants, they are not likely to report having Coronavirus, not to mention getting medical help, guaranteeing a wider spread of it. 

Good for Democrats; bad for Republicans.

The 1918 flu started discussion in England about universal health care; Churchill was one of the first proponents. Over a hundred years later, the US is still considers it anathema. But discussions about a public option and other ways to bring health insurance to those without it will certainly ramp up now. 

Good for Democrats; bad for Republicans.

Unless, the President adopts the Democrats approaches and policies as his own and introduces them now, with predictable fanfare and self-aggrandizement. That might tick off the Democrats but, hey, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

The Old School Tie

He pulls out his brother’s old school tie, grey flannels, and a blazer, as well other the necessary items for a short trip to Rhode Island; shaving kit, shirts, 2 sweaters – 1 cotton, 1 wool – and a pair of polished shoes.

When they were kids growing up there, Rhode Islanders had a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”

It had to do with the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean and the temperature on land, or something like that. All he remembered was how fickle the weather was, blizzards in April and rain in December, and everything else in between.

And that was before climate change.

While he’s packing, the TV shows a Kobe Bryant memorial. Thousands of people, stars like Christian Aguilera, Alicia Keys, and Beyonce performing, Michael Jordan and Shaq O’Neal speaking, thousands at the stadium and millions at home sharing tears and laughter. The country had been in mourning since January 26, when the basketball superstar died in a helicopter crash.

According to UN estimates, 7452 die in the US on a typical day. Some are revered superstars; some are just normal people. Some have millions of mourners, some have no one, some in between.

He’s packing for a memorial for one of the in-betweens, which describes most of us. We are born, go through our formative years, have careers, if we’re lucky we have families, grow old and say goodbye. Two or three generations later, few people will even know our name, unless it’s on a gravestone or memorial somewhere.

His son picks him up and they head up route 95 to Greenwich, Connecticut where they pick another son and a daughter who had trained out from New York. All of his kids are out of the nest and on careers and trajectories of their own and this Rhode Island trip is one of those rare occasions where they can all be together.

Others in the extended family arrive at a large Airbnb his daughter had booked. There are two more daughters, some nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and more. He gets the single room, because he’s the last of the “old guys” now. Cancer had taken the oldest brother away in 1996; several few weeks ago a heart attack took this brother. Now there is no-one between him and the cliff.

His brother’s eldest daughter arranged for the memorial service, his sister-in-law still on the roller-coaster that events like this put us on. The church is nearly filled; his brother was that kind of guy, liked by everyone he met, and he had met a lot of people. He wears his brother’s school tie and sees a few others dotting the pews. The service is short and very New England stiff-upper-lip. He listens as the minister encourages people to share happy memories of his brother who is in a happy place now, and he remembers the classic Tom Hanks line, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

Of course, at the reception afterward, guess who breaks the rule while giving a welcome speech. But his New England roots take hold and he gets through it, telling a funny story from their childhood.

Later, at the family dinner, he continues following the minister’s advice with more stories of a man for whom old school ties meant so much, for whom the quiet elegance of integrity and understatement were as ingrained as his innate ability to make puns (the humor of choice for smart people – “and very punny puns”, he thinks – the only pun he could ever come up with, which he did, numerous times).

On the ride home, the stone walls and delicate beauty of New England architecture race past, bringing memories of high school football games, the tie and coat dress code, and a culture that taught one over-riding rule: be a gentleman – no lying, cheating or stealing, respect others, do the right thing. Old school, to be sure. Old, old school.

As New England recedes and is replaced by hi-rises and dense traffic, he thinks about the old school tie in his suitcase. He’ll put it in his bureau in the drawer with other mementos from his youth, rarely to be used again.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)