The Aliens We REALLY Don’t Want

A few stories over-shadowed by the big ones ( pandemic and social unrest due to racial issues) have caught my attention in the past month or so. Stories about immigrants, of good and bad sorts. It makes me think the U.S. has the right issue but the wrong targets.

My sweetie loves Youtube videos about decorating and crafting and one favorite of hers is a young guy who makes, well, somewhat over-the-top centerpieces, mantel decorations and wreaths using dollar store goods. He’s called Ramon at Home, and even if I don’t share his enthusiasts delight in all his lavish designs and all things burlap, I must admit the young man is quite charismatic. He has a strong Hispanic accent, and he shared a story of how he grew up poor in Mexico and looked forward to nuns coming around with such simple gifts as new toothbrushes and toothpaste. He came to the U.S., taught himself English and now seems to have a beautiful house and thriving online community following him. Lately he’s been spearheading a campaign to get children’s clothes and hats for low-income kids at Christmas. It’s hard not to be inspired by that or get behind a person like that. Of which there are so many in the land.

So it surprised and pleased me to hear of George W. Bush’s upcoming book. Out of Many, One is going to be a book of portraits painted by the former president; 43 different immigrants accompanied by essays he wrote about them. It’ll be his second book of paintings, coming after Portraits of Courage, pictures of U.S. military personnel he painted. You can take that – a book celebrating immigrants to the country – how you will in terms of the commentary about the current government and its policies. Bush says “there are countless ways in which America has been strengthened by the individuals who have come here in search of a better life,” and adds “it should be (an idea) that unites us.”

Right you are, George… and I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be saying that about Mr. Bush’s writings or beliefs about 15 years back. There are stories in the news though that do suggest America has a real problem with immigrants… just not the kind Washington is worried about. Invasive species.

When environmentalists talk, lately “climate change” gets the attention. The spotlight and the hand-wringing and the sparse money that is to go around to implement change is directed towards what Al Gore referred to earlier this century as “Global warming.” But it seems like a number of unwanted visitors are ruining our environment and country a lot faster than a few added degrees on the thermometer ever will.

To start, more Asian hornets have been found this year in Washington state and nearby B.C. in Canada. The giant wasp dubbed “murder hornet” by the media showed up in a few locations last year, found noticed when beekeepers near Seattle and Vancouver found some hives decimated. The 2” long hornet has one of the most powerful stings of any insect, and is said to kill about 50 people a year on average in Japan.

This is disturbing. I have allergies and am at risk around stinging bugs. So too are an increasing number of people. In fact, an average of 62 people a year die from stings in the country annually, and that number has begun to rise sharply in the past decade, according to the CDC. People worry about sharks when they swim or rattlesnakes when they go walking but bees and wasps kill several times more people than those critters combined. An even bigger, more dangerous wasp isn’t going to help that any!

Experts add that the Asian hornets aren’t aggressive… unless you stumble upon their nest… which people undoubtedly will, since they bury their nest underground rendering them more or less invisible until you step on it. But even if their non-aggression is the case, they are concerned that the hornets have a real taste for eating bee heads like we might snack on popcorn. A single one can eliminate a hive of honeybees within a few hours. The repercussions for agriculture could be monumental should they get a foothold, even if only along the Pacific coast.

One of the reasons the number of people being rushed to hospital, and at times dying, from insect stings is a similar story. Although “yellow jacket” is essentially a rather non-scientific generic term for a number of wasps, the ones we usually mean when we say “yellow jacket” – the ones which menace our picnics and have never met a beer or soda they don’t like – are actually European ones brought into the continent in the 1970s. Maybe they came over on ships or planes accidentally as the Asian hornets likely did; maybe some misguided farmers imported a few to try and control other bugs (when a yellow jacket can’t find some McDonald’s or Miller to share with you, they’ll happily chow down on other bugs including smaller wasps). One way or another they started showing up in the Great Lakes region in the mid-’70s. Now they’re considered a major pest as far afield as the towns of Dixie and the Canadian Rockies.

Stinging insects aren’t the only unwanted six-legged intruders. Spotted Lanternflies have been, well, spotted, in Pennsylvania this year. It’s an Asian moth which actually looks quite attractive. But, says the state, if you see one, “it’s imperative to immediately report it (and) kill it! Squash it! These bugs will lay egg masses of 30-50 eggs each.” The adults will not only enourage poisonous mold to develop on the plants, but also eat the leaves and can destroy fields of plants including grapes, apples and hops.

You won’t confuse the spotty moth with another recent Asian arrival – the Ash Borer. That colorful green beetle from Eastern Asia recently showed up in the northeast around 2002 and has managed to do some $280 billion damage so far. “An ecological catastrophe,” the American Forestry Association calls it. The beetles lay their eggs exclusively under ash tree bark, and when the larvae come out, they feed on the wood, quickly killing off the tree. Entire forests of ash trees from Quebec to Kentucky have been wiped out already. Ash is not only one of the most common types of forest tree in the East, providing homes for many birds and animals, it’s a popular shade tree in gardens and commercial one used for lumber (and baseball bats.) One of the suggestions to control them is – I kid you not – to bring in more, different Eurasian wasps to see if they can, because North American wasps aren’t eating them in any appreciable number. More foreign wasps? What could go wrong there?

Of course, the problems aren’t limited to insects. Florida is having to wage war against … pythons! Someone probably had a few Burmese pythons at one time as pets and perhaps thought they were getting too big. They dumped them in the Everglades. Within the past two decades, they’ve multiplied and spread throughout the southern part of the state, growing precariously close to the 26-feet, 200 pounds they can reach in their native southeast Asia, eating almost anything that gets in their way.

While attacks on people are rare, they’re not unknown (and expected to become more common if the numbers keep growing and they invade places like Miami and Orlando in any significant numbers), they’re doing huge amounts of damage to the ecosystem. The babies eat rabbits and rodents, but the adults can eat animals as large as deer! The state says since they’ve been found in Florida, there are 99% fewer raccoons and opossums in the Everglades and adjacent areas, 87% less Bobcats (probably as much because the pythons are eliminating the cats’ food as much as eating the Bobcats although that can happen as well) and lowering bird populations while rabbit and fox populations have almost disappeared. They spent $142 million last year trying to get rid of them, both by directly trying to catch and euthanize, as well as implant radio devices to track them and hopefully root out nesting sites and colonies of the huge reptile. Even though snakes have no legs or arms, so far, it seems the pythons have the upper hand. Although Wild boars, yet another invasive running wild, do sometimes manage to tear them up… along with anything else in their path, plant or animal.

So yep, seems like there is a problem with some unwanted foreigners coming into the country. Only thing is, they’re generally winged, or scaly or furry, not people.

Making The Boys In Blue Better

Remember when we were kids and were taught that the policemen were our friends? Good guys? Watching the news lately, one wonders what happened. If you believe a lot of news stories and critics these days, the cops are the criminals and the ones good people should be terrified of. Hell, shows like Cops have been canceled to placate the riled and a widely-circulated article online called Olivia – champion of women victims in the long-running Law & Order, SVU  show a “bastard” simply by virtue of her character being a police officer. It’s a tough time to be a “boy in blue”. Or girl in blue for that matter.

Watching the isolated video clips, there’s little wonder to be surprised. The death of George Floyd was clearly heinous and a blatantly criminal over-reaction to a minor crime he apparently committed and the only thing more reprehensible than the Buffalo cops shoving 75 year old Martin Gugino, causing him to smash his head and suffer a fractured skull, was the other riot police walking by him ignoring the bleeding senior. Or maybe the president defending them suggesting Gugino was a terrorist waving some magic wand that could eliminate all police communications systems.

It’s all a lot for me to take in. I always figured there were bound to be a few bad cops – a tiny minority – but for the most part they were honorable, hard-working people devoted to the common good. But watching some of these videos and seeing reactions like the entire Buffalo riot squad resigning in support of their violent comrades and some police hide their ID tags to prevent being identified makes me rethink how few and far between bad ones are.

It’s sad. I come from a slightly (only slightly, but still) calmer, more peaceful country, Canada. We’ve seen cops do some bad things there too, but such reports are definitely less common than on this side of the 49th Parallel. I grew up near Toronto, in a county (or “regional municipality” as we call it) that had two large cities within its borders plus a fair expanse of rural farmland.The area had a population of over 600 000 and was growing fast, and was serviced by one regional police force. They had to deal with calls that ranged from bar brawls to biker gang rallies, bodies washing up on the Lake Ontario shoreline and coke smuggling to ice fishermen falling through the ice on rural lakes in winter and the occasional bear wandering into a town.

A friend – actually a girlfriend’s big brother at the time – joined the force and soon was on their Swat team. Outside of work he was easy-going, fast with a smile and able to get along with people of any number of backgrounds equally well. A good guy, and I presume, a good cop. I had a job for over a decade in a pro camera store and lab which had the contract with the police to provide their camera gear and develop their films. We had to be vetted, and no wonder. Through the years there, not a murder happened that I (and most of us in there) didn’t end up seeing photos of – crime scene, victim, weapons, autopsy, accused, you name it. We developed film after film of car accidents, assaults, robberies, suicides and anything else that asked for a police documentation. I was told that it was as good as a “get out of jury duty free” ticket since we all had such intimate knowledge of the big cases, much of which never made the news wire stories, we’d never be approved to be on a jury. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the cops. Many of the “Soco” officers (Scene of Crime), the patrol officers with cameras that would handle basic B&Es, minor car accidents and the like as well as the entire “Ident” (Forsensic Identification Unit) crew of specialized investigators akin to the TV CSI people. I knew the homicide squad by name,loaded supplies into their trucks.

And what I found was that they were good guys. I say “guys” because the vast majority of them were male, although there was a female homicide cop – a rather pretty one truth be told, although unlike a Hollywood version of her kind, one who went to work in baggy cargo pants and body armor instead of Dior dresses and heels! They were different – some were a lot younger than me, some were a decade or more older and nearing retirement, and their personalities were varied as would be with any group of dozens of people. A few were very intense and hyper, some had wicked senses of humor and wouldn’t leave without sharing a joke. Many brought in pictures of their home . Wives, kids, weekends fishing, photographing birds or working with body builders or redoing old car bodies. Some would talk about the cases and what they saw, others avoided the topics completely. But the one through and through feature was they all seemed like absolutely decent people working to make the area better and safer. Guys you’d be very relieved to see drive up if someone was trying to get into your back door at night, or happy enough to have a coffee with if you ran into them at the Tim Horton’s.

It makes comprehending the current American situation more difficult for me. I don’t have an easy solution to make the situation fine or ensure that police are all wonderful, or at least as good as the ones I used to rub shoulders with. But a few things seem to me like they’d be helpful .

First, an obvious one. We need the body cams and dash cams most forces already have. They should be on every police unit dashboard and clipped on every shirt or vest of an on-duty officer. The car ones should be triggered as soon as the warning lights or siren are activated and the cops should be instructed to activate the body cams every time they leave their vehicle on a call. Disabling the cameras would be grounds for termination of their employment. Even an honest person can lose track of exactly was happening in a chaotic situation and the camera can show us better what went wrong, or right for that matter. The dishonest one of course, will realize they’ll have less chance of getting away with misbehavior if they’re being recorded.

Speaking of their cars and shirts or vests, I think having fewer unmarked or undercover people and cars would benefit all. Obviously, there are situations where undercover work is necessary. Police couldn’t infiltrate, say a street gang that robbed stores and sold crack around the neighborhood if they were dressed in uniform and driving cars with a fancy blue light array on the roof. But more and more police work seems to be undertaken by people in street clothes driving unmarked cars and trucks and as a result we see more stories like shootouts at raids where the inhabitants claim the police stormed in with no way of being identified as police as opposed to street thugs. If they’re wearing the blue or black shirts with the badge and drove up, lights flashing, there’d be little defence for them being shot at.

In Ontario, there’s a Special Investigations Unit. It’s a government branch which is automatically called in to police the police, if you will, any time a civilian dies in a police operation or other serious incidents (like car accidents ) occur involving on duty police. The local force have to step aside and let the SIU investigate to see if there was any wrong-doing. There are several “teams” for the province, but usually they aren’t from the same town they are investigating. It’s not perfect. For one thing, the majority of people hired to the SIU are former cops themselves, which has led to calls of bias. But the idea is valid and if the investigators would include a wider cross-section of the populace, would be a great way to ensure that police negligence or worse, crimes, weren’t covered up. States should have the same sort of investigators.

Finally, the concept of being a police officer needs to change. In parts of the country at least. It is a vital function for society. It is a trying job with gigantic responsibility. It calls for wisdom, good physical conditioning, great communications skills and a moral compass pointing squarely north. It needs to be seen as an important career, not just a job for any Joe. As such, the country needs uniform minimum standards to be a cop, and in most locations, the bar needs raising. More training is needed, which should include psychological courses and testing, cultural studies, anger management courses as well as studies of the law and weaponry and driving under adverse conditions. It might take a couple of years before a young person was qualified to be a policeman or woman, but we’d be relatively assured of having high quality individuals doing the job when they graduated. And that, I might add, may well require paying them more. Not every prospective cop would like that added training, and not every taxpayer would like being faced with potentially increased municipal taxes, but in the end, if our streets are safer, are downtowns aren’t being burned down and the police aren’t suffocating citizens on the streets, it should be a trade-off we’re willing to make.

Gone With The Winds Of Political Correctness

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So said Spanish philosopher George Santayana in a famous quote that made such an impression on Winston Churchill that he echoed it in British Parliament just after the end of World War II. Some might want to keep that sentiment in mind if they don’t want 2021 to look suspiciously like 1921. Or 1821 even.

This came to mind today upon hearing that HBO was pulling Gone with the Wind from its newly-launched streaming service. The reason? Some people complain that the 1939 movie about the Civil War in Georgia is “racist”. The Black people are portrayed as slaves, people subservient to Whites and in general not as smart (at least in conventional educational terms) nor as revered or wealthy.

Which would be a problem if it were a movie set in the present day. Especially if it was one which was deemed to be a documentary rather than a work of fiction. In the context of mid-19th Century Dixie, however, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. In fact, any other presentation would seem phony and ridiculous. History people!

I haven’t seen the film actually. I guess it just isn’t my theatrical cup of tea, given that it came out more than two decades before my birth I could have. It has been readily available for years on VHS and then DVD, not to mention quite a few TV showings. Turns out I’ve only seen 26 out of the AFI’s (American Film Institute) “100 Greatest Movies of All-time”. I mean, how can we be talking “greatest films” and not have Groundhog Day there? But that doesn’t stop it being a widely-loved and important movie. The Film Institute ranked it as the fourth greatest of the 20th Century. In their latest list, it comes in as the sixth best ever. The Academy back in the day agreed too, giving it eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. So popular has the three-hour plus film back then that the Governor of Georgia declared a special state holiday on the day it opened back in 1939; so popular has it been since that day that it’s said to be the highest-grossing film of all-time when box office tallies were adjusted for inflation. That’s big. That’s history in itself, in fact.

But despite all the love for it, HBO – who undoubtedly had to pay some pretty pennies to buy its rights – now think it too dangerous for people to view. They say the movie depicts “racial prejudices that were wrong then and are wrong now.” They fail to see that any depiction of the American South set 160 or more years ago inherently must depict racial prejudice for it to have any value whatsoever.

We’ve been through this all before, with libraries which wanted to pull Huckleberry Finn from their shelves and schools which stopped teaching To Kill A Mockingbird for the same reasons. The latter of course is all the more galling given that the main character is a White man who goes against the prevailing beliefs and norms, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan of his early-20th Century Alabama community and legally defends an innocent Black man. But that wouldn’t stop the most sensitive types from complaining that the Black people in those novels weren’t universally held in high regard in their Southern communities nor holders of prestigious positions.

I don’t subscribe to HBO Max, and if I did I’d probably prefer to spend 220 minutes binge-watching nine episodes of Friends than watching Gone with the Wind. I mean, sorry but Vivien Leigh is no Jennifer Aniston and in all likelihood Clark Gable’s “Rhett” isn’t as witty as Matthew Perry’s “Chandler”. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the movie should be there for those who want to view it. Actually, if I had signed up after viewing ads they ran showing it as a feature you’d get, I’d probably be a bit P.O.’d if they pulled it.

What happened to George Floyd was terrible, cruel and criminal. That’s obvious. So too was the fact that slavery was alive, well and revered in the South many years ago. What isn’t terrible or cruel is telling the stories. So I say HBO, bring back Gone with the Wind. If you decide to have the family watch it, go ahead and explain the context of Georgia and the Confederacy in the 1850s. Talk about the Civil War with the children, why people felt it was necessary to fight their neighbors to the south. Talk about equality and our nation’s values. If you actually think that Gone with the Wind perpetuates inequality, talk about that too in context of it being a hugely-popular film that’s been watched millions of times over 80-plus years. But go ahead and watch, and go ahead and talk about the issues.

Watch it or don’t watch it. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. But I do care that we have a chance and a choice. And if you don’t want to speed a repetition of history along, you probably should too.

May Hooray 5

Rock musicians get a bad rap at times. Of course some are dumb as posts, but that could be said of many professions from truck drivers to store clerks to senior politicians as well. Many however have a lot going on. There are ones who’ve worked as teachers (Sheryl Crow, Bryan Ferry and Sting to name just three), ones who’ve written books, ones who are pilots (Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden has worked as a commercial jet pilot in his down time from the band), others that have turned successfully into other arts like painting (John Mellencamp, Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs) or photography (Michael Stipe, Chris Stein of Blondie).

One of the quirkier characters in the field is David Byrne, the former singer of Talking Heads. He formed the band while studying art and design at university in Rhode Island and put together some of the most unusual and ground-breaking rock of the late-’70s and early-’80s. He wrote a movie (True Stories) and as eclectic as the band was, found them too confining. He quit and has worked on other movie soundtracks, (one of which won an Academy Award for Best Original Score), several Broadway plays, formed his own record company to promote obscure World Music largely from Africa and published a book of botanical sketches he drew. And he’s an avid cyclist and has worked extensively to make New York City more bike-friendly. Whew! Writing it makes me feel a bit lazy for sitting around at night saying “OK, one more re-run of That 70s Show before cleaning the dishes.

Anyhow, he comes to mind because I was writing about him a few days back on my music blog. Another blogger there, Msjadeli brought another project of Byrne’s to my attention. A website, designed to help us feel a bit more optimistic in these trying times. The name says it all – Reasons to be Cheerful.  Subtitled “News for when you’ve had too much news”, it’s an interesting site. There’s a a hodgepodge of stories that do indeed lend one to seeing more light at the end of the tunnel; stories of smart urban planning, good health news, social good and a whole lot more. Give it a look!

Creative thinkers like Byrne – one more reason to be cheerful!

Time To Be Like A Crow

A CNN headline grabbed my attention this week – “Birds that learn new behaviors less likely to go extinct.” Being a birder and environmentalist, I  was hooked. I read it and found that a study by people at McGill University in Canada found that birds which adapted their diet or hunting techniques to the situation they were in did better and were less endangered than ones which didn’t. It cited examples like crows, which have been known to pick up nuts and drop them on roads so cars would run over them, with the birds eating the innards when the coast was clear, and cormorants which would follow fishing boats in hopes of getting some of the catch the boat would drop or throw away.

My first reaction was “duh!”. My second was “how do I get in on research money to do a study like that?” Maybe I could spend a few years getting paid finding that “people prefer cuddly kittens to feral rats for pets” or “people prefer a nice breeze to tornadoes ripping the roof of their houses.” I mean it seems abundantly obvious enough, doesn’t it?

Maybe I felt a bit jealous. Not to toot my own horn… oh, OK, “toot toot”… I said exactly the same thing about five years ago in my first e-book, The Mockingbird Speaks. In that, I suggested that many life lessons could be learned by watching Mockingbirds and one in particular was that the adaptable thrive, be they birds or people. I pointed out that the birds were expanding their range and increasing in numbers at times when many other birds were becoming scarcer by the year. Mockingbirds eat almost anything – I’ve personally seen them consume everything from wasps to wild cherries to millet seeds at feeders and records show they won’t turn down cut up oranges, baby lizards if they find them, suet, and almost any kind of berry known to man or Mother Nature. They’ve learned to live in our city gardens, the edges of forests and along the weedy right-of-ways along rail lines. That’s adaptable.

Similar success stories are birds like the Cooper’s Hawk and Pileated Woodpeckers. The hawks have skyrocketed in population since DDT was banned in the 1960s partly from that helping their health but also in part due to a sudden change in habitat. The bird-eaters used to live almost exclusively in dense woods. In the last thirty years, they’ve somehow come to realize that they do equally well in suburbs. Feeders and populations of city robins, sparrows and pigeons ensures them a steady food supply and as long as there are a few big trees around for their nests, they seem to thrive. The Pileated Woodpecker is similar in that they’ve somehow changed from needing vast tracts of forest to living in and feeding in neighborhood trees in green towns and cities.

Contrast that with well-known endangered species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Kirtland’s Warbler. The woodpecker, a larger version of the Pileated, lives – or lived – in dense, old southern swamps eating pretty much just one type of beetle found in decaying trees of a certain age in only certain floodplain trees. When most of the forests that fit the description were felled, their populations crashed and now a record, even if accompanied by grainy video, is viewed with a lot of skepticism.

The colorful little Kirtland’s Warbler is similar. For whatever reason, they seem to only eat select insects that inhabit only Jack pine forests of a certain age. That type of forest only occurs in a small area of northern Michigan and a few hundred acres in Ontario. One large fire could potentially wipe out the species. The individual birds, I’m sure aren’t being obstinate or dumb… they aren’t making a conscious choice to only eat one type of bug and saying “I’d rather die than live in a different variety of tree”… they were just dealt a bad genetic hand.

The implications, to me, were obvious. Birds which adapt do well, those which didn’t were not much better than doomed.

By extension, the message carries over to us. As I put it, yesterday’s expert typewriter repairman is today’s chronically unemployed person. We need to adapt to changing times and situations. If a type of food becomes scarce, we need to be able to substitute something else for it in our diet. If our employer goes belly-up, we need to be able to take our skillset to new ones. Needless to say, the more we can learn and adapt our skills (be they job related or personal ones), the better off we are. It was a message that made sense in 2015. It’s imperative now.

This pandemic is challenging all of us, and I don’t think anyone is liking it much. Maybe it’s doing your 9-to-5 at a bedroom desk, maybe it’s getting shopping done before work instead of late at night. Maybe its shopping less and being less picky about what brands of soap or toilet paper we’ll accept. Even when this eventually calms down and we go back to a new “normal”, adaptations may be called for. Dr Fauci already suggests that business meetings won’t be opened by everyone shaking hands in the future. Some stores won’t throw the doors open again after Corona virus is a distant memory and maybe the person coughing and sweating away across the corridor from you at work won’t be considered an admirable example of work ethic and rather, a selfish sickie down the road. It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that we need to be flexible. Need to be able to adapt like a crow. Or Mockingbird.

I’m off to round up some fuzzy little kittens and angry rats…

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 3

What will the new normal be when things finally revert back? Perhaps that’s the biggest question of all these days, even more than “when”.

I’m far from unique in pointing out that when things went back to “normal” eventually after the 9/11 attacks, we found that “normal” was different than had been on Sep. 10, 2001. It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest that Corona virus will be similar in that eventually, when it fades into the background or even disappears, things will be different. What does take imagination though is to figure out just how they’ll be different.

There will be some negatives for years to come, of that we can be sure. The economy’s already taken a major hit worldwide and we’re not even close to wrestling this illness to the ground. The “stimulus” package just passed in the U.S. is said to cost some two trillion dollars, and guess what – that’s got to come from somewhere. Yes, that’s probably very necessary to help out people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, temporarily at least, and having to pay unexpected out of pocket expenses but is also about $8000 per taxpayer country-wide. Expect either tax increases or cuts to other government services for years to come. Likely both.

Obviously, some businesses that are closed now may not come back. Many non-essential retailers are shut down for the time being in the name of public safety, and for some that are already teetering on the edge of oblivion, it may be too much to ever come back from. I’d be surprised to see an open Sears or JC Penney store in the future, personally. Same goes for Pier 1 as well. That company just closed about half of their whole chain just before this occurred, and I wouldn’t bet on the remaining 450 stores or so in the future. After all, the chain was already nearly completely bankrupt in good economic times; nice but expensive imported pillows, wall hangings and tableware may find an even smaller market in tough times that will follow. And yes, tougher times will follow.

People are going to lose their jobs, not only in companies like theirs which will probably go under. Right now the tourist trade is taking a beating, understandably, and while the beaches of Florida, the Eiffel Tower, Disney World, the pyramids of Egypt and so on will always be draws, if the economy shrinks, they may not draw as many people. It’s unlikely the government’s going to let major airlines or hotel chains fold entirely, but not unlikely they’ll shrink. Fewer tourists means fewer jets in the air, fewer pilots and flight attendants, fewer hotels needed. Not to mention fewer restaurants and bars near those attractions, fewer gas stations along the way.Hence fewer jobs.

I wonder too, if many businesses still operating but operating differently won’t choose to opt for the new ways. For instance, many stores have cut their hours (that made no sense to me in the case of supermarkets, which were already busy and seeing a jump in sales) … neighborhood “24 hour” Walgreens now close at 9 PM in many cities and it’s rare to find a supermarket or Walmart open before sunrise now. If they find people still find ways to shop during the reduced hours, will they revert to the old, longer hours that require more manpower and electricity down the road? Less all-night shopping, and thus fewer retail jobs may emerge from Corona. On the other hand, shopping online may become even more dominant than it has been up to now.

With many offices doing all they can now to get the majority of their staff working from home to prevent the spread of the illness, it’s not hard to imagine that if that goes without too many snags, they may not be anxious to bring their whole roster back to the home office five days a week. A lot more people may be telecommuting in the future, good for the bottom line of the corporations (less office space means less rent, electricity etc.), good perhaps for our environment (imagine the savings in gas for just an ordinary worker not driving perhaps ten miles a day to work… now multiply that by millions) but perhaps not good for socialization or for the real estate market.

Speaking of real estate, if the economy flounders for some time as a result of this virus, tough times may befall real estate agents. But it could be a bull market for Lowes and Home Depot, as well as books by those “Property Brothers” or Gainses of Fixer Upper fame as people decide to just “spruce up” the existing home instead of looking for a bigger and better one to move into.

Let’s hope though that some good things will arise from this mess. For instance, people are now hyper-vigilant about washing their hands and not standing near people coughing or sneezing. Perhaps that will become more of a habit down the road, and we’ll all be a little bit healthier in years to come. Same goes for staying home when you’re sick, which might become even more ingrained into our consciousness if more employers offer sick days as a result.On a bigger scale, perhaps governments, American especially (but others as well)  will see a positive aspect to perhaps spending more on defending their population’s health, even if it means spending just a little less on defending borders with space-age jets and missiles.

People are getting by without going out to the malls for recreation right now; while we don’t want to see large chains go out of business and people losing thousands of jobs, our society might do well by having some people realize that shopping is more a necessity from time to time than a daily recreational activity. If our society becomes even a little less consumeristic and more people-oriented as a result of Corona Covid 19, it could be a bit nicer, and less wasteful world to inhabit.

The U.S. has a way of looking rather narrowly at the world and seeing itself not only as the Center of Everything, but as a bit of an island. (An example which comes to mind to me, as a Canadian, is how most American publications will refer to American records as the only ones… when they speak of “best-selling albums of all-time” for instance, they almost invariably are referring only to U.S. figures, ignoring the ones sold to the other 6.7 billion people elsewhere) If people come to look outwards a bit more, and see themselves as part of a global community besides just being a part of their own country, we might benefit. That of course is true of other countries as well, although I think that mentality is most applicable to the United States.

But the U.S. isn’t the only country which will hopefully go about things a bit differently in the future. It might be politically incorrect so say, but it’s true nonetheless that China needs to change the way of some of its people. I know, many think it hypocritical to say we can eat cows or pigs but others shouldn’t eat other mammals, but there’s a reason people don’t normally eat bats, cats or rats. Corona virus came out of a “wet market” in Wuhan, somehow making the jump from infected bats there to local people to wardrobe consultants for Law & Order SVU across the Pacific in a matter of about three months. These markets not only treat animals inhumanely, they crowd together any number of exotic species in close, and unsanitary conditions, proving a nice little petri dish for viral experiments. Corona came from there; SARS and the Swine Flu from similar situations in China earlier this century. Time for bats and wildcats to be left to the wilderness and the animals we choose to consume to come from farms which meet certain health standards, in Wuhan just as much as Wisconsin.

Last but not least, let’s hope we can all gain even a wee bit of a new set of priorities and appreciation for things we can take for granted. In the city I’m in, the large public park near me is closed down – presumably because the virus could infect kids playground equipment or a drinking fountain. It’s rather a drag. Maybe when things go back to “normal” , people will appreciate that park and walking through it a little more. And maybe we’ll rediscover the simple joys of things like walking around the parks enjoying the singing birds and blooming flowers; like doing arts and crafts or playing Clue with the family. Getting to appreciate what we have now, and those we have in our lives, a bit more. That wouldn’t make the current pandemic a good thing, but it sure could mean some good might eventually come from it.

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 2

Wuhan, it turns out is a city that’s the same size as New York. Yet it’s only the ninth biggest city in China. The U.S. has one city (the Big Apple) with more than five million residents; China, 19 of them. Which along with it being about 5000 miles removed from the nearest port on our shore, explains why three months ago most of us had never heard of it. Until, that is, people who shopped in a “wet meat” market started getting sick, and in some cases dying with what originally seemed to be a weird pneumonia.

That was around Christmas time, but due to both the Chinese government’s secrecy and our own fascination with efforts to impeach the president and all those TV singers wearing a mask, we didn’t really begin to hear about the Corona Virus, or Covid 19, until about a month later.

The first news reports seemed bad, but also seemed almost irrelevant to us here. Yes, thousands were sick there but not here and China, seemingly to their credit looked like they had gone to lengths to contain it. It was downright bizarre to watch news reports from China – not even just Wuhan, but other major cities – and see huge modern expressways into skyscraper-sprouting skylines completely deserted; see reporters talking in malls bigger and shinier than ours which were modern, gleaming … and empty.

Then somehow, Iran became infected. Then Italy. People got worried. Japan shut down their whole school system for a month, despite not reporting many cases. Italy quarantined the whole northern half of their land. Then a couple dozen people contracted it on a cruise ship off the California coast and the president didn’t want to allow it to dock. All for a disease which we initially were told was nothing worse than the flu, which we already have over here and kills thousands of people a year, and for which we do nothing other than suggest people get an annual shot that may or may not help prevent it. It made very little sense.

It really seemed like it wasn’t our problem until very recently. That’s the striking thing – how quickly our world has changed. Not as fast as if a jet had flown into a building, but quickly nonetheless. And the impact might be just as resonating.

The first sign things were really haywire was only about two weeks back, when the NBA suddenly suspended their season, only a couple of weeks short of beginning their playoffs. Hours after that announcement, we found one Utah player had the illness. Then two. Then four New York ones. I was dumbfounded when I read that news before going to bed that night, less than two weeks back now. Personally, I don’t care for basketball, so it mattered little at all to me, but it was shocking because it matters to millions of people, and generates hundreds of millions, billions even, of dollars. You don’t just erase dozens of games (many with 18000 or so tickets pre-sold for them) at a drop of the hat. Within 24 hours, the NHL had followed suit and the writing was on the wall for baseball which was ramping up to full speed about a week and a half away from opening the regular season. A day or two later, MLB had stopped all spring training games and delayed the opening of the season to who knows when. That’s when it started to become a bit of a real annoyance to me… and people began to panic.

Fast forward only about three days from there and we get to two Saturdays back. By now, the U.S was up to a few thousand known cases, and about 11 or so fatalities, mainly in one old age home in the Seattle area. It seemed alarming, but still entirely controllable. Not to the masses though.

I ventured out to one of the larger mid-town supermarkets that Saturday night and left basically empty handed. Entire aisles had been cleaned out as if a Biblical plague of locusts had descended. There was not one roll of toilet paper to be found, nor paper towel. Only a handful of loaves of bread remained in the 40-foot aisle, and those were mostly those oddball “organic, gluten-free, quinoa with fig bits” loaves that sell for about $6. Or actually, don’t sell. Most of the canned goods were gone. The next afternoon at Walmart, more of the same. No milk or eggs either. And that’s about when the craziness really set in.

We know a couple in Austin who weren’t feeling well. We see them about once a year. Somehow, communications lines got crossed and there was a rumor they had Corona Virus. The Kiddo here told someone at her workplace that and the boss jetted in like a 747 into an office tower and told her to leave immediately and not set foot back in the store until she’d been tested and could prove she was corona-negative. This for a teen girl who was showing no symptoms.

Her mom and I kind of rolled our eyes and sighed, and said well, fine if that’s what they say we’d better take you to a hospital and have you tested. Mother phoned both of the large regional hospitals only to be told they had no tests available. On Monday we found that there was testing in a city 80 miles away… but you had to have symptoms and be referred by a doctor. We began to realize why the current administration was being raked over the coals for not handling this crisis well. Not handling it at all actually.

The kiddo tried to explain that to her manager, and the latter reluctantly let her come back to work in the store which had by then cut its hours. All a moot point now as that retailer has shut all of its doors until some time in April at best.

Well you know the rest, because it seems like whether you’re in Tennessee or Florida or north of the border in Ontario, it’s the same. We’ve had a week where people are panicking, lines form around the block two, three hours before supermarkets open in the morning with people eager to have a chance at getting a 6-pack of toilet paper or case of bottled water and by mid-day, most shelves in the food and cleaning aisles are empty as if the Grinch had just gone through leaving one crumb too small for even a mouse.

On the plus side, city streets which are usually gridlocked at 4 PM are a nice easy glide and the gas to do so cheaper than it’s been for years, because people have nowhere to go. Businesses are shut down, you can’t go out to eat or watch the game (which isn’t taking place anyway!) , telecommuting has in 10 days gone from the unlikely and a perq of the few to the way offices do business now.

My sweetie works in a large, modern office for a large local company. She handles customer inquiries and complaints, quite well I must say. Flu swept through it last winter, the company seemed not to notice. Corona though, is a different breed of virus. By mid-week last week, they were asking workers to work from home. Today she started doing so, for the forseeable future. The company even sent home one of her large monitors so she could use a bigger screen than her laptop offers. So far, it’s going well though she already misses some of her “team members” and her bigger, liftable desk there. Which is understandable to me, as I’ve found that the thing that makes most jobs mentally worthwhile is the co-workers you interact with and the friendships you make there.

Of course, it’s not just her, nor just offices. Can you imagine being an NBC exec and suggesting three months ago, “I think we should prepare for when Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker have to do the Today Show from their own living rooms and our nighttime talk show guests will be being interviewed remotely via Skype?” The company would’ve shown you the door and stuffed a map to the local mental hospital in your pocket on the way out. Yet that too is the new reality.

It’s scary. The illness seems random. Some have it and barely feel “under the weather”, others get it and are in the ground a week later. That’s scary. In Italy and elsewhere, it seems to explode like a bomb after the public makes real efforts to do what we’re told – wash hands, stay indoors and so on. That’s scary. Every day that passes makes it less likely fans like me will be watching baseball this year, or like my dad, the Olympics this summer and that’s … well, not exactly scary, but mind-blowing nevertheless.

Eventually, we’ll go back to normal. But what will the new “normal” be? It might be bad but maybe, just maybe it won’t be that scary….

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 1

People older than me often talk about remembering exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard JFK had been shot. It was before my time. I do remember Lennon being killed; it saddened young teenage me but didn’t have that kind of “time stands still” effect people on me people refer to with Kennedy.

To me, so far in a bit beyond five decades and counting, there’ve only been two really big things that changed the world. Not changed my world (things like a parent dying or moving to another country can do that easily but don’t really make much difference in the overall grand scheme of things) but changed the whole world. The first was Sep. 11. And now the second is this Corona virus pandemic.

I remember 9/11 as clear as the skies outside were that morning. I was driving to work, a short commute cross-town, and for some reason I flipped on the AM news channel in the car instead of my usual switching between the in-town rock station and Toronto alt rock one. I think I actually hadn’t heard the previous night’s baseball scores and wanted to catch a sports update. Instead, I got a live news report from New York, about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. That seemed bad, needless to say, but the radio details were scant at that point. I figured it was some little Cesna piloted by an incompetent novice flyer. Bad, but nothing much to worry about.

Of course, the world changed very quickly that morning. By the time I got into work, the second plane had hit the other tower and they were no Cesnas nor the pilots simple incompetents. 2001 was a different time in many ways, and we had only limited internet at work (and no TVs) but we were not allowed to use the computers to surf the web or do anything personal. That day though, we stood around the monitor at the front desk, owner and hourly people alike, watching the events unfold and getting frequent updates from terrified customers who walked in. At the time, offices like the Chicago Sears Tower and even Toronto’s CN Tower were evacuated because we didn’t know what would come next. There were of course, wild unfounded rumors as there usually are when terrible things occur. At one point in the morning, we were led to believe there were probably a couple dozen more jets up there which had been hijacked and could be targeting anywhere. My sweetie, whom I didn’t know at the time, was in Waco, Texas and scared they would be a target, not so stupid a worry considering then-President Bush had his own ranch just a few miles down the road and was known to fly across the city in a helicopter.

When I got home, I had on the TV – what channel didn’t matter, since they were all doing nothing but cover the story – and phoned my Mom, who was crying. As most of us were.

I guess I went back to work the next day. I don’t really remember. Well, we all know what happened afterwards. Things slowly went back to normal, but it was an entirely new “normal.” Soon the U.S. would be invading Iraq for goodness knows what reason and both they and my Canada would be sending troops into Afghanistan for the futile reason of trying to bring that country into the capitalism-loving, Christian-based 21st Century. Got your shampoo in your carry-on bag? Think again. Homeland Security became not only a new catchphrase but a whole new governmental department. And of course, Middle Eastern people, many of them not even Muslim and almost all of them good, harmless, were viewed under a microscope and with widespread disdain and mistrust.

That indirectly was one of the odd personal effects it had on me (no, I’m not Middle Eastern nor Muslim.) At the time, I’d been laboring away on a novel. I likely had about half of it done, maybe 100 or so pages. I wasn’t absolutely sure of its direction and outcome, and it wasn’t going to be shelved beside Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby in the “you must read this book now!” section of future libraries. Nevertheless, I was proud of parts of it and some bits of prose in it.

Strangely though, for what reason I cannot recall now, I’d put in a secondary character who ran a small convenience store in the protagonist’s hometown. The shopkeeper was very friendly and polite… and very foreign looking. Spoke with a strong accent. And midway through the story, he got carted away by the Feds on suspicion of funding a terrorist cell. My protagonist had to work through it all in his head, and figure out if the friendly man behind the grubby counter was an evil mastermind or an innocent victim of rumor and prejudice. (Strangely, as I said, that was not the main storyline, just one tangential to a larger picture of small town life.)

Well, needless to say that got trashed. It seemed inappropriate at best to write somehting like that then, and in fact, at that time it just seemed suddenly a waste of time to write some work of fiction. Trite. The novel ceased and eventually disappeared into a landfill I suppose, with the rest of the hard drive of a now long deceased computer.

I wish nowI’d kept going on it, even if I changed the story around some. In retrospect, the philosophy of the cast of Friends was the right one. They believed, after some reflection, that what they were doing was important, that entertainment was perhaps more important than ever then as people needed relief from the worries and uncertainties of the day. They decided to keep going, make a few subtle signs of respect for the victims in their show but try to make people laugh more than ever. Likewise, the players who went back onto the field to finish the baseball season later that month; they knew the public needed a diversion. But that wasn’t my mindset then.

In the years since, things have gotten back to normal, but it’s not quite as good a “normal” as it was in the spring of 2001, or in 2000. And things kept going along as normal until just a few weeks ago when people started getting very sick in a city in China we’d never heard of…

No Need To Have A Corona-ry Over Corona

I think I’m getting a bit sick. Sick of hearing about the Corona Virus, that is. Or perhaps it’s more that to me the math doesn’t add up and I’m sick of people in media and government alike seemingly failing to ask questions about why that is.

So what’s the latest? It’s hard to keep up. Recently Japan shut down all of its schools for the entire month of March to prevent the spread of the illness. The country with the emphasis on education and brains doing that in response to just a few hundred cases of the virus showing up there. Seems a little hard to fathom. Some airlines have stopped flying to Italy because of around 1000 cases reported in the north of that land. And of course, China, where it originated has not only got armed guards keeping people from leaving the city of Wuhan, but has shut a very large chunk of its entire industrial machine in response. If you’ve noticed the price of gas has dropped a bit this winter, thank that virus… China’s quarantines and industrial shutdown has caused a drop of worldwide demand for oil and has left the mutlinats and OPEC with a glut of oil for the time being.

That might seem good for American consumers, but don’t be so fast to cheer. The stock market is plummeting in measures not seen in the past decade due to fears of the illness itself and subsequent worries about shortages of consumer goods and car parts that used to roll off those now closed Chinese assembly lines. And have a stiff drink if you own stock in Constellation Beverages. The company’s stock has plummeted from $207 to $172 just since Feb. 24 because of declining sales of its flagship product, Corona Beer. Some surveys show that 38% of Americans would refuse to drink it because they think its a source of the disease, because, well that’s just how clever many Americans are. Thank goodness the U.S. hasn’t closed all its schools – yet. All the while stores are selling out of things like Lysol wipes (which actually are useful at killing germs – be they corona, flu or anything else more or less) and face masks (which the CDC are screaming at us not to use and are suddenly calling useless). a trip to my local supermarket last night saw several people wearing the masks anyway and an ominous emptiness on the bread and bottled water shelves,. It could have been a truck or two delayed en route but seemed more likely to me it was the result of people panicking and stocking up for the cough armaggedon.

People are panicking and one can’t blame them entirely. No one had heard of this weird, bat-borne illness a few months back, now it’s the lead story on every TV news program and above-the-banner headline in every newspaper. Biden vs. Bernie, step aside for the Bug from China. Tornadoes in Nashville? How will having people without their homes sheltering together amplify the spread of Corona virus? What if one of the corpses in shattered houses was infected with Corona?

Of course, we’re used to the media blowing things out of proportion. They have to attract viewers and sell print, and nothing short of Jennifer kissing Brad sells like a dash of fear. Any coyote seen running away from a city park is likely to be the terrifying lead story at 6 should it be a slow news day with no escaped prisoners running loose and no slight risk of severe storms in the long range forecast. We saw a similar, if slightly scaled-down response to the less common SARS back in 2003 and to the apparently much less harmful West Nile Virus about a decade back. But government’s and public agencies are usually calmer and more rationale. To see the kind of reaction we have from various governments around the globe is rather astounding… and question-raising.

To me, medicine is a branch of science and science is at its core, rational. Mathematical. And to my eyes, there’s nothing logical about this viral event. A + B are not adding up to C. That worries me and makes me wonder what component is not what we are being told, which factor would make it all add up.

Because we have a disease which is still fairly rare. At last count there are something like 85 000 cases in the whole world. That’s a lot, until compared to the world population. There are something in the range of nearly 100 cases in the U.S.; not a huge number in a country of 310 million people; and not much of an apparent risk when those people are quarantined in secure hospitals. By comparison, the CDC report a minimum of 29 million cases of flu this winter in the country. And who knows how many countless others have had it, stayed home in bed, groaned and slept for a couple of days then got back up and at it without reporting to any doctor? At least two in my household alone. Furthermore, we’re told this year’s flu is more virulent than usual and that in any average year, it will kill around 18 000 people here and hundreds of thousands more elsewhere. Yet factories aren’t closing their doors, students aren’t being told “no classes this month” and airlines haven’t abandoned Atlanta, O’Hare and LAX to prevent its spread. why then the responses to an illness that’s claimed about 2400 victims in total?

The equation might still work out if Corona was an exceedingly grim, horrifying instant death sentence. A sort of ebola-on-steroids-but-as-communicable-as-a-common-cold. But it’s not. Here the experts differ a little, with some saying it is less dangerous than the flu while others contend that it is about as dangerous as a severe flu, but even so, they all agree that many who have it don’t even know they have it because symptoms can be so minor in many people. And based on the info we’re given, the mortality rate from it is no more than 2%… significant, yes, and scary if your loved one comes down with it, but not a major risk overall, especially if the ones dying are mainly ones with existing serious medical conditions or the very elderly.

So it leads me to worry. Not about catching Corona from some random person 100 feet away from me in a store who yesterday stood next to someone who’d gone to China last fall, but about the truthfulness of our expert sources. A + B are equaling C-squared here, not C. Is the disease far worse than we’re being led to believe? Are there thousands of deaths being covered up, and if so, why aren’t their families and friends making a noise? Or is this some kind of clandestine, weird experiment and conspiracy to test preparedness for a real Spanish flu-type pandemic or something else only the X-files might contrive?

Until we hear more reason, I say wash your hands, cough into a Kleenex or your sleeve, stay home if you’re sick and go out and do your thing if you’re not. So far, it seems like maybe the “cure” is worse than the disease.

Waking Up to The New Decade

It doesn’t feel much different today than it did last week, but of course it is. Welcome to the 2020s.

Of course, in reality very little is yet different just because the calendar has been switched. But there’s the mindset. The perception that things could be different. So strong is that urge inside of us that “any resolutions?” is right behind “do you want another drink?” as the most common of late-night December 31st questions around the world. Which leads to Greta Thunberg.

A year ago, most of us had probably not heard of Thunberg. An anonymous, surly Scanadanavian teenager. A year later, she’s Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”.

Many were disgruntled by this. An article displayed prominently on Yahoo News asks “who better than a finger-wagging teen bereft of accomplishment, or any comprehension of basic economies or history to” be so honored. “Has there ever been a less consequential person to be picked?”

My first reaction was essentially the same. In some respects, the President of the U.S. nearly deserves the award by default every year, because good or bad, few influence world events nearly as much, year in, year out. As such Donald Trump would have been a worthy person to be named. After all, he’d been on the magazine’s covers seven times during the year. Of course, if he had won the “honor”, many would have been quick to rein in his bragging by reminding us Hitler and Stalin had also been named “Persons of the Year”.

Many thought the “Whistleblower” who reported Trump’s call to the Ukraine which spiralled into the Impeachment hearings would be the appropriate person. Up until his or her report about the president’s iffy phone call, no matter what he said or did in the White House had carried repercussions with them. That all changed with the “whistle blower” who would make Trump the third president to be impeached. That’s quite a role in history! And it’s worth noting, un-named “whistle blowers” had been honored similarly by Time in 2002.

I thought Boris Johnson was an apt winner. The Brit with hair and a lack of caring about convention to rival Trump’s had in only three years gone from Mayor of London to a national politician to an appointed Prime Minister to a PM with a strong majority mandate supporting his drive to “Brexit.” Preumably he’ll take the UK out of the European Union and throw a monkey wrench into plans to have, and expand, one united continent/country. That’s pretty major as well.

Thunberg, on the other hand, was a quiet, rather ordinary (albeit slightly Autistic) Swedish kid who turned 16 during the year. She’d come to some attention in her country suggesting kids express their concern by skipping school. Shockingly, that caught on. Before you knew it, she was addressing world leaders and globe-trotting with her “finger-wagging” and message about the perils we are putting the planet in by ignoring climate change and refusing to change behaviours. “You say you love your children, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes” she says. Surprisingly she’s found sympathetic ears among the highest offices in countries like France, Canada and her own Sweden. governments are beginning to change policies because of her chastising and more and more of her counterparts from around the world are starting to speak up as well.

I have to admit, I find her a bit tedously sanctimonious. But while we can debate the minutae of the numbers, it is obvious that we as a species can’t continue to deplete the planet’s resources and burn all the fossil fuels in the way we have been for the past six or seven decades.

I remember being passionate about the environment when I was Greta’s age. Signing petitions, writing letters, feeling a comradarie with others of my age and interests. People of my parents’ generation undoubtedly looked on with fond memories of their own Hippie youths.

That’s something that seems all too lacking in most of today’s youth – the rather interchangeable “Gen Z” and “millennials.” All too much it seems like they’re passionate about video games and upgrading cell phones and not a whole lot more. A number of them seem reluctant to even go outside, let alone look at the world beyond their screen and ponder its future. Which is what makes young Greta special.

It’s a new decade and we should feel like the “future is unwritten”, to quote Joe Strummer. We should feel like the future is going to be better and change can come about. But that won’t happen by sitting on our hands and waiting for it to happen. So here’s to Greta Thunberg for doing her bit to make sure we don’t do that.