A View from Inside Armageddon

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” reaches into a smouldering sky

September 15, 2020: The skies over San Francisco have cleared, finally, and the Air Quality Index has moved from Red to Yellow – still not something you’d want to go outside and exercise in for an extended period. But a week ago we woke to a Day of Darkness like nothing many of us had ever seen — or hope to see again. This (below) is an account of that day that I posted on Medium.com. but somehow managed not to post on this, my forever site.

It’s Armageddon. The Apocalypse. Those are the terms most frequently being tossed around, alongside “Really? Can you believe . . .” “This is surreal . . .” Nobody seems able to come up with words expansive enough.

Temple Emanu-El (rt) overlooks an apocalyptic scene

Mostly, however, there is an eerie quiet. Everyone looks around wide-eyed, behind their masks, speaking in whispers or small-child voices.

Northern California awoke to dark, burnt orange skies that created an impression of early evening at nine in the morning. We were already shaken by months of uncontained pandemic which by now has killed at least one or more we knew and loved, and sickened others who live with after-effects still unknown. Then came the racial unrest erupting in our cities and neighborhoods. Followed closely by the wildfires consuming beloved parks, forests, homes, communities. Uncounted mornings began with a cautious look at the air quality index, realizing it was too toxic outside for a walk around the block. And now this? Pitch dark at 9 in the morning?

The day of darkness was disorienting even for 2020.

But here is an on-the-ground report about the good news. Confronting the Apocalypse, people turned calm. And kind. This reporter needed to leave the safety of my securely quarantined geezer building, with its giant air purifiers on every floor, for a medical appointment at noon (when it looked like, oh, 8 PM.) So I made a couple of brief detours before heading home. First stop was the parking lot of a small neighborhood shopping center where I periodically buy flowers at the grocery store – because the flowers are outdoors out back, and someone will always take my credit card inside to pay for my selection. (I do not enter non-medical enclosed spaces.) There were lines of cars moving in and out and around. They moved very slowly. People stopped to let others have plenty of time to move in or out. Nobody honked. Around the back of the store where the flowers are there were probably several dozen people – talking about how it couldn’t possibly be midday, with all the lights on inside . . . But people spoke in hushed voices, frequently with soft laughter. (Apocalyptic times invite laughter. Who knew?) Everyone gave everyone plenty of social distance, but while we were moving around we smiled behind our masks as if sharing some awful but negotiable secret. While I stood with my armful of lilies and roses and my credit card held out, two customers and one store employee heading out on lunch break offered to go inside and take care of my transaction.

Then I drove a few blocks into the Presidio, where Inspiration Point is a celebrated spot for taking photos of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz sits, jewel-like in the water, across an expanse of evergreens. The walkway and low wall are ideal for selfies and photos against this quintessential San Francisco backdrop. Immediately across the road from the small Inspiration Point parking area is Andy Goldsworthy’s soaring sculpture “Spire.” I lived nearby when “Spire” was created. We watched Goldsworthy and his assistants daily in 2008 as they built his towering monument of 37 Monterey cypress trunks bound together to reach 100 feet into the sky. Like others of Goldsworthy’s beautiful creations, Spire will eventually be absorbed back into nature, as surrounding trees continue to grow. On this Armageddon day, Nature has turned sculpture and surroundings alike into a glowing ember-like forest.

The view from Inspiration Point still inspired. But it was nothing like what photos in millions of tourist albums show, sailboats drifting around Alcatraz below blue skies and billowing clouds. It was a sepia-toned picture of suddenly colorless shrubs, with an umber haze settled around a few blinking lights of houses in the distance – a distance without Bay, sailboats, Alcatraz or the otherwise familiar.

And again, there was the eerie quiet. The ever-present mix of excited children’s voices and friends calling to each other was replaced by a hushed, slightly fearful wonder. Cars came and went, but slowly. There was no birdsong. I don’t know where birds go in times of distress, but they go silent. I read later that lights had to be kept on at the San Francisco Zoo because the animals were disoriented by the daytime darkness.

I had a notebook tucked under my arm while taking pictures around Inspiration Point. As I turned to get back into my car the notebook dropped with an unseemly noise. “Here,” said a soft voice as a gloved hand reached for my notebook. “Let me help you.”    

Collisions and Other Injustices of Today

Do we need any more catastrophes? Pandemics, economic free-falls, California wildfires and toxic air? How about getting smashed by a 16-wheeler?

It is the final indignity.

Metal being ripped and torn, car parts scraping the concrete roadway, the harshest sound accompanied by the ugliest of sights and smells, this is just not a good way to start your day. But some days just seem to choose their own paths. Mine was chosen not by me but by the giant 16-wheeler truck that decided to turn right from the center lane precisely as I was turning right from the proper right-turn lane. You would think he might have noticed that little car directly in his path (doing exactly everything legal and proper, it should be noted.) But no.

The first life lesson here is, in any encounter between small cars and16-wheelers, the big guy wins. The second is, sturdy small cars are good.

Eventually the crashing and shattering slowed, and I crunched my way to the curb. The big guy  pulled to the curb in front of me – unscathed, I might mention. It was reassuring to find I could open the door and get out of my car; we should be grateful for small favors.

The thing about early morning catastrophe – this is probably true of catastrophes any time – is that the rest of one’s life is simply tossed aside while the catastrophe takes over. For thirty minutes or so I waited for the police. We are trained – aren’t we? – to remain at the scene of the crime, and after all, that giant truck had just killed my beloved 2000 Volvo S40. Its name was the LilyPad. I don’t know about other urban centers, but if you’re in San Francisco waiting for someone to come to an accident scene, forget that. I have since learned that the thing to do, in San Francisco at least, is mention blood or difficulty breathing and the police will come. I called the tow truck for the LilyPad.

All one really wants in these circumstances is affirmation. At least, that was all I wanted: someone, anyone other than the driver of the giant truck – who was unlikely to fill this role – to confirm how utterly blameless I was. And how cleverly I had steered myself out of mortal harm. I mean, seven decades on the road and not one moving traffic violation. Am I going to let a poorly driven 16-wheeler mess up my record? Mr. Quoc, the driver, was single-mindedly interested in repeating the only three words of English I know him to speak: “Wide right turn! Wide right turn!” In Mr. Quoc’s defense, he simply didn’t see me way down there. My understanding of his position, however, stops short of excusing him for not noticing the LilyPad in her proper lane.

The indignity of losing control of one’s day grows exponentially with the insurance experience.

Early on, my friend Naomi of the giant truck’s insurance company evidenced more concern with my health and wellbeing than I thought necessary. Nice of her, but still.

“You didn’t go get checked out?! You should go get checked out!”

It’s possible Naomi – who had at least graciously said they were “accepting responsibility” – was thinking Personal Injury Claims. So she wanted to send my octogenarian self to a hospital in the midst of a pandemic? I thought better of that.

But the final indignity is the bottom line. Not only is no one going to compliment me on my driving skills, Naomi is going to pay me about $1,300 for my beloved 2000 Volvo S40 – something about book value. OK. – and absolutely zero for anything else – something about the way insurance works. Days lost? Angst and agonies of buying a new car (at least I found a 2001 Volvo S40)? No dice, I should’ve thought to break a bone or something.

RIP, LilyPad.   

(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a good site for information and ideas that I’m enjoying writing for. Check it out.)

What If Your Grandmother Simply Wants to Die?

“Is this living?” she asks me. And then again, the words that are hardest to hear, “I just want to die.” This from a greatly beloved cousin of mine, someone I have known my entire life. She is now 93, widowed for 12 years, living comfortably in an assisted living community in upstate New York, relatively healthy for her age.

Maybe you recognize your grandmother in her? At almost every turn, if you turn around among today’s retirees, chronically ill or elderly, there is this strain of despair. Bits of it were always there, particularly among the “old-old” as over-80s tend to be categorized. But add the isolation of quarantine, and questioning the value of living gets to be a pandemic in and of itself.

In my own independent/assisted-living building there is a 96-year-old retired college professor, a nationally recognized poet and writer, longtime radical activist who now shares my cousin’s despair. Her son comes every other week from his home a two-hour drive away, but more and more she feels it’s only out of a sense of filial duty and must be burdensome to him. Because both her sight and her hearing are diminished she can no longer write – or even read without a struggle. If others try visiting, to read to her or perhaps listen to favorite music to create a small break in the monotony, “it just feels artificial,” she says. “Everything feels artificial. I am just existing here, a prisoner in my own apartment.”

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on Pexels.com

These are women (and occasional men) whose lives were made meaningful by trips to the symphony, or a lecture, or even to the grocery store. A surprising number of them, including my cousin, were activists; they are the ones now writing letters and postcards to representatives – or to voters. But they are also the ones with diminishing sight or arthritic fingers, and up pops one more reason not to want to live any more.

So how to find meaning, some reason for living? For many there are ‘daily inspiration’ type services by the zillion, available to send messages by phone, text or email as frequently as anyone might ask. I’ve talked with several dozen people while putting together this essay, men and women both, who say their daily messages from religious sites, astrologers or you name it brighten their days and often bring meaning in these isolated/isolating times. (Some of them are re-reading the Torah, the Bible or the Quran.) Unfortunately, neither my cousin nor my friend in this building would be a candidate for inspirational messaging of any sort.

But for almost anyone, telling her story can turn into a reason for living – and more. As the memorable song in “Hamilton” goes: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Telling it yourself gives you editorial control, if nothing else; if you’re old and isolated it might give you much more. There’s a site called StoryWorth on which one can sign up one’s grandmother for a fee. Every week, StoryWorth sends a question like “When did you buy your first car?” or “What was your childhood home like,” things of that sort. Grandma reminisces about the question, perhaps attaches photos of the old home place, and hits Reply. At the end of the year, StoryWorth (this is not a paid plug; there may be similar sites but I couldn’t find them) puts it all together in a book for the family.

I bought my cousin a cassette recorder. Yes, they’re still on the market. I’d initially thought to get her a digital voice recorder (those who have iPhones need nothing more) but her son suggested that anything digital might be too bewildering. Along with the recorder I sent a converter device, into which her son can place the cassettes and morph them into thumb drives or something of the sort which can easily be mailed to children and grandchildren. Because I’ve known her all my life, I was also able to send a list of more specific questions – How did you meet Joe? Where did you go on your honeymoon? What do you remember most fondly about that first apartment (the one with all the roaches)? What were the parts you and Joe sang in the Carolina Players production of “Of Thee I Sing”?

Will it help? Who knows. Her voice has indeed sounded a little more upbeat and she says she’s looking forward to the recorder’s arrival. Those of us who still love life, despite its chaos and quarantine and bitter inequities, generally wish that joy for others. But the population of lonely, isolated seniors grows every day; some of them simply wanting to die. This space welcomes any and all thoughts on what to do if it is your grandmother.

Watching Reproductive Justice Disappear

This is a downer essay. Much as I try always to end on an upbeat note, there are only long shadows. Still . . .

I am old enough to remember when, in 1973, Roe v Wade was ruled into law. I can also remember having a kitchen-table abortion, in 1956, after a workplace rape – in a time when both rape and abortion were too shameful – but only for the woman involved – ever to be mentioned.  So it is beyond distressing to watch reproductive justice disappearing. This is a current look at two pieces of that disintegration.

A tiny bit of qualified good news: recently Theodore Chuang, U.S. District Judge for the District of Maryland ruled that during the covid-19 crisis requiring women to travel to clinics for medication abortion – a matter of taking a few pills – presented a “substantial obstacle” for these patients. This is good news for women, and for telehealth. In this upside down time, those of us who have fought for reproductive justice over the past decades of its steady decline tend to glom onto any tiny bit of good news.

The problem is, such an overwhelming amount of bad news remains that it’s hard to feel optimistic for more than five minutes. The bad news includes an endless list of anti-abortion rulings by lower courts that have been filled with conservative judges at an astonishing speed over the past three and a half years, a constant onslaught of state restrictions making abortion access harder and harder especially for the poor or powerless, and even the proposed Democratic House spending bill for 2021 – which includes the onerous Hyde Amendment.

A few explanatory details on the good news. Mifepristone, the drug used in combination with Misoprostol to safely induce abortion up to ten weeks gestation, was approved by the FDA in 2000. Since the procedure is a matter of taking a few pills, it’s been increasingly used by physicians practicing telemedicine during the covid-19 pandemic. Judge Chuang’s ruling says this can continue. But once we’re past this public health nightmare, all those states requiring women to travel to clinics to take a couple of pills – often, especially for poor women, at a cost they can ill afford – will go back into effect. Mifepristone is many times safer than penicillin, but it is more heavily regulated than, for example, fentanyl. Go figure.

It is not hard to go figure if you have followed the political rhetoric of the past three and a half years. We are reaping what we sowed, electoral collegially speaking.  

As to the Hyde Amendment – which forbids use of federal funds for abortion services except in very narrowly specified circumstances like rape, abortion or when the woman’s life is in danger. It was passed in 1976. Like that of so many other restrictive laws, its harm falls most heavily on poor women and minorities. Assorted Democrats have, over the years, attempted to get rid of it, and dozens of groups are still fighting to get it removed from the spending bill. But Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the LHHS subcommittee (Labor, Health & Human Services, Education & Related Agencies) put it into today’s proper perspective.

Recently, after celebrating much of the spending bill, Rep. DeLauro turned with a measure of wrath to the inclusion of the Hyde Amendment.  “The Hyde Amendment is a discriminatory policy,” DeLauro said. “This is a long-standing issue of racial injustice and one that is routinely considered—every year as a legislative rider—but we are in a moment to reckon with the norm, with tradition, and view it through the lens of racial justice. So, although this year’s bill includes it, let me be clear we will fight to remove the Hyde Amendment to ensure that women of color and all women have access to the reproductive health they deserve.”

The sufferings and occasional deaths of countless women every day who are denied access to reproductive care will be the legacies of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, an interesting site on which I’m enjoying writing.

Give Me Your Tired . . . Your Desperate

Jose is a fresh-faced 23-year-old with a shy smile that sometimes breaks through. When word slipped out that he is gay, he began getting death threats from members of his extended family who consider homosexuality a sin and his existence a blot on the family. After one particularly scary near-miss attempt on his life, Jose left his native Colombia for the long and treacherous journey to the U.S.

Maria fled an abusive husband whose beatings had twice landed her in the hospital. Both times (and other times) she had sought refuge with family, but he had quickly found her. She said he was a member of the gang that controlled their area. After one final night of terror, she left El Salvador with little more than the clothes she was wearing to begin the perilous trek to a country where she thought she could find safety.

These are the only two asylum-seekers I personally (although only remotely) know. I would not be surprised, though, if they were in multiple ways representative of the hundreds of asylum seekers now held (many of them separated from their children) in a federal detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, or waiting under pretty terrible conditions in Mexico for the slim chance of being granted asylum in the U.S.

Our government isn’t making their path any easier, but Jose and Maria and other desperate asylum seekers do have allies. If you simply think the U.S. should get out of the asylum-granting business, don’t waste your time reading any further. But if you feel a modicum of sympathy for people like these, read on.  

In case you missed this, Virtual Advocacy Days for Asylum happened July 14-16. In brief, it was a group effort, on the part of a number of individuals – I think there were thousands of us, but I’ve not seen a final report – to do something to help the countless, nameless people seeking asylum in these United States. Something about that ‘Give me your tired, your poor – and maybe your desperate too’ idea. The effort was to advocate “for restoring life-saving asylum protections and defunding harmful asylum policies,” the website explained. “Our goal is to ensure that Members of Congress are educated about the administration’s systematic attacks on the asylum system that has resulted in a complex web of harm against asylum seekers.” Virtual Advocacy Days for Asylum were sponsored by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, a partnership of faith-based organizations “committed to enacting fair and humane immigration reform that reflects our mandate to welcome the stranger and treat all human beings with dignity and respect.”

Immediate disclosure! My part in this was so teeny as to be invisible (a few calls and letters to Members of Congress.) It just feels infinitely warmer to write “us” rather than “them.” But my remarkable friend Ally McKinney Timm, Executive Director of DC-based Justice Revival, was out there on the front lines meeting with congressional staffers and “influencers,” distributing materials, and alerting people like me that there are ways to help. There still are.

How? Lovely of you to ask. There are currently four pieces of pro-asylum legislation being considered by the House and Senate. There are also anti-asylum policies in place that you might want to help change. I do not pretend to understand all the nuances of U.S, policies or immigration laws – or even to have carefully read through the four bills. But I know innocent people are suffering. The Virtual Advocacy Days are past, but the ways to advocate remain, explained in one clear and simple page, for anyone interested.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a good site for ideas and information where I’ve been happy to write in recent months. You might want to check it out.

The Humankindness Revolution

It might be the people along protest march routes handing out bottled water to perfect strangers. It might be the people cheering healthcare workers. Or the guy piping a tune on his bagpipe from his urban rooftop every night at sundown for 100 days. “And nobody complained,” he remarked after calling it quits when he ran out of tunes. Or it could be my long-married gay friends who sponsored a persecuted young man seeking asylum and are caring for him “as the son we never had” in their small apartment while trying to guide him along the complex road to safety in the Land of the Free. But these and a zillion other small instances point to the same large truth:

Kindness is making a comeback. I believe it will become an integral piece of what emerges as our New Normal.

If that happens, it’ll be thanks to a lot of people already hard at work to make it so. Over at randomacts.org they are out to “conquer the world one random act of kindness at a time” – in case you think kindness-building has no lofty goals. The Random Acts people are in the business of fostering “small acts of kindness, such as inspiring someone to buy a stranger a cup of coffee, to much bigger acts of kindness like building a school in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.” If you have a really good idea for a randomly kind act, they will even help you out with some funding to make it happen. (Or you can go fund them so they can fund more kindness.)

And then there is Kindness.org, which I discovered the old-fashioned way: by Googling the word. If you Google humankindness – which is what I really wanted to write about – you’ll find that word has been co-opted by Dignity Health. Dignity re-branded itself not long ago from Catholic Healthcare West. It is kind to its patients unless they want contraception, an abortion or legal Medical Aid In Dying. Full disclosure: I believe in contraception, reproductive choice and legal MAID, denial of which seem unkind to me. But back to Kindness.org, where they believe that kindness matters more than ever.

The kind folks over at Kindness.org have actually analyzed it all. Looking at 259 kindness stories posted on their site – good reading if you’re feeling low – they started with creating a definition: “Kindness is the act of doing something beneficial to someone (often at a cost to oneself) with an accompanying emotionally positive motivation.” That builds on the dictionary definition of kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” The kindness I believe will be part of our New Normal is going to be both quality and action, so I’m going with both definitions. Among those 259 kindness stories were discovered things like: about an even split between planned and spontaneous acts; or, people were kind for a variety of reasons – they wanted to help or make someone feel better; and it made them feel better to be kind. They also found that fully 76% of those acts involved kindness to strangers. If this isn’t enough to start a kindness revolution – concurrent with the other simultaneous revolutions for good that are now underway – I don’t know what it

You can learn more about the endeavors of the Kindness.org people on their kindlab blog, right here on Medium. And if you need scholarly proof of the incipient kindness revolution I offer the following;

My friend Steve Heilig, a distinguished public health professional, editor and environmentalist among other things, recently published a weighty article titled On Radical Uncertainty and Silver Linings in a Post-Truth Pandemic. It’s a thorough examination of the triple crises currently facing our battered planet: the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest and the whole “post-truth” business, all of which currently involve more dark clouds than silver linings. But even in the experience of a deep-thinking ethicist/editor, the kindness movement crops up:

“On a more personal level,” Heilig writes at the article’s conclusion, “I have been heartened by countless smaller, local, human gestures, from spontaneous neighborhood helping circles assisting the most vulnerable, to lines to donate blood and to volunteer at food banks, to support for those in need financially, and more, including more efforts at “correcting” misinformation. There are actions that we all can take in our own realms and spheres of influence.”

Welcome to the kindness bandwagon.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for ideas and inspiration you may want to visit.

Covid-Chaneling Punxsutawney Phil

I think I know how Punxsutawney Phil feels. He emerges from a comfortable dark hole, looks around at the universe, makes a decision about how the future might look and returns to his comfortable dark hole.

The thing about it is, Phil only has to do this once a year. We above-ground types are being asked to do it over and over, and it can be trying for the average citizen. Meanwhile, pity the poor mayors and governors who are – in the total absence of national leadership – trying to advise us. Punxsutawney Phil has, at least, an Inner Circle (don’t look at me, this information comes straight from Phil’s Wikipedia page) to advise him about the forecast. We’ve got Anthony Fauci. But God only knows (and She has an awful lot on Her plate these days) whether science and reason will or will not be allowed the microphone.

(This space being mildly committed to avoiding overt political statements, I will skip right over the resemblances between Punxsutawney Phil and that other prominent American who sometimes pokes his head above the black hole of despotism and stupidity he inhabits, sniffs the hostile atmosphere and sinks right back into a comfy chair to watch Fox News.)

But out here in the real world. San Francisco, for instance.

Shadows in the park

California, having successfully addressed the coronavirus early on, recently proclaimed semi-liberation day. Announcements of Phase I re-openings were made. Everyone prepared to emerge from whatever dark hole of confinement he or she had been inhabiting. Then apparently way too many citizens of the Golden State threw caution (and masks, and social distancing) to the winds. Infections are running rampant, restrictions are being re-imposed, plywood that had begun to be removed is being nailed back in place. It is beyond bewildering.

So, much like Punxsutawney Phil after a lonnnng hibernation, recently I ventured out of the dark assisted-living hole I inhabit. Authorized to go for an unsupervised walk to restore my health and sanity, I set out, due uphill, for Lafayette Park high atop San Francisco. Here is how it went:

Blocks 1 and 2: Everything’s fine. But when did I get this out of shape?

Block 3: OMG, a person not wearing a mask is walking right toward me. Do I step into the traffic to avoid his germs? Should I call 911?

Block 4: See that lady walking into the apartment building a few yards to the left? She is coughing. Coughing. I summon my diminishing strength to sprint across the street before the light changes.

Block 5: Thank heavens, the park is in sight. At least all those steps at the entrance are shallow enough that I can probably still handle them. And there aren’t a whole lot of contagious-looking people hanging around. It’s important to be out in the sunshine. I need to keep that in mind.

Block 6: But here they are. CROWDS. How do I know whether that group all smushed together over there is really a family? If I take my usual uphill path, can I maintain six-foot distance from everybody? All these happy people, what’s the likelihood they are asymptomatic covid-positives? Anyway, don’t these people know about masks? The view of the Bay is spectacular.   

Going home it’s all downhill.

This essay first appeared on Medium.com, interesting site I’ve been writing for these past few months. You might want to check it out too.

Wear a Face Mask? Oh, why bother . . .

CAN WE LAUGH — OR MAYBE SMILE — OUR WAY THROUGH THIS?

“CORONAFEST 2020!” read the ad for Mr. Trump’s Tulsa rally that floated around the internet, “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague!” And as a sort of postscript below: “Be sure to reserve your ICU bed and ventilator.” We’re going to hope this stays funny. Although I know the Bible says not to invoke harm upon your fellow human beings, it’s really hard not to wish a moderately severe case of covid19 on every unmasked attendee. I don’t actually want anyone to die, even if Mr. Trump would then be reducing his voter base – just get sick enough to make a point.

When did public health get hijacked by crazy politics? I live in San Francisco, where we started off the pandemic with early sheltering-in-place that kept our numbers low. But our numbers, at least those showing reported cases (3,400+) and deaths (48+) continue to rise. Some other factors are “meeting target goals,” but the list I obsessively keep has never showed a decline in cases since I started obsessing on March 26. We are slowly and cautiously re-opening around here – even geezers in my assisted living fortress now leave for non-emergency medical appointments. I have one this week that is a pleasant 10-block walk away, and you never saw anyone this excited about going to the dentist. However. A few days ago, in the balmy sunshine of Lafayette Park, people weary with staying in were practically shoulder-to-shoulder on the grass, 90% of them without mandatory-in-SF masks.

We seem to have parallel narratives: “Masks & distancing will get us through this with the least damage” – or “Oh, why bother.” The difference between this pandemic and the last is that it’s not just the crazies pushing the Oh why bother. Remember the old H1N1 swine flu a decade ago? Seems almost quaint. The country was prepared, met the virus head-on, came up with a vaccine opposed only by the crazies. To be honest, vaccine supplies fell short and were funneled to the most endangered: children, healthcare workers, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions. But compared to the novel coronavirus, H1N1 does look like a pussycat.

Here’s my question. Is there a way to get to the other side of this pandemic without major suffering – more overrun ERs and ICUs, upwards of 200,000 probable deaths this year – or minor discomfort? Keeping six feet away from all those people you want to hug (and many you’d settle just to high five) can sometimes seem more major than minor on the behavioral difficulty scale. But it’s doable. Masks are hot and bothersome and they fog up your glasses. I have a serious dislike of even my new overpriced mask, which I bought because it’s light and washable and theoretically doesn’t fog up my glasses. (They lied. It fogs.) Still, I’m wearing the blasted thing every time I walk out the door.

Maybe a little humor will help. Political jokes? Given where we are, you might as well laugh. Or subtle joys such as a friend suggested. “My boss drives me up the wall,” she said. “But I can look at him with straightforward eyes while I’m sticking my tongue out behind my mask.” A blog about H1N1 that I posted more than a decade ago had a conclusion that still fits, if you substitute “mask” for “vaccine.” In any event, the last line is still appropriate:

The best news of the pandemic is probably the fact that it has become fodder for stand-up comics and comedy shows. Once we start laughing at things they tend to whittle themselves down to sanity. My favorite message so far came from host Jon Daily on the Daily Show, in response to some of the craziness coming from the likes of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. What we need, Daily suggested, is a vaccine against the vaccine, so we could have peace of mind while being vaccinated.

A little peace of mind goes a long way these days. (franjohns.net 10/25/09)

(This essay was posted earlier on Medium.com)