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.

Recalling July 20 , 1969

As news anniversaries go, today’s quite a biggie: the 50th anniversary of astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon for the first time. The “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” moment.

I imagine most Americans, and a lot of people from elsewhere remember the moment very well. One of the indelible moments etched into memories for life, enhanced by the then space-age fact that it could be shown on TV. I’m too young to really remember, but I’m told our family were camping somewhere like New Brunswick the day it happened and some people had brought along portable TVs to watch it on.

As a kid, I thought it was pretty cool. We drove near the Kennedy Space Center at least once when I was a youngster, seeing an Apollo rocket there sitting waiting to launch towards the moon a day or two later. I had a souvenir model of an Apollo rocket from Florida, about a foot high, that I kept on my bookshelf for years.

But as time has gone by, my opinion has become that NASA and Space Shuttles, Space Stations and all the rest are rather a massive waste of money. Been there, done that. It was rather cool, and useful I guess in the day to show we, as a species, could go to the moon, and find out what it was made of. Alas, not great cheese samples came back with the astronauts, just rocks! But do we really need to spend billions to explore Mars to confirm it would be an inhospitable place for people? I think the money is better spent making this planet better and more livable.

But in the spirit of the day, I do find some words of importance from Apollo. Neil Armstrong was in awe, apparently, when “it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea,pretty and blue, was earth!” He felt small and our world suddenly looked very finite. His crew mate Michael Collins said “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of say, 100 000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed.” Various Russian cosmonauts have made similar remarks.

That makes sense to me. See the planet from space and you’d realize how beautiful it is compared to most solitary orbs in space, how there wasn’t much difference between Cuba and Florida, Russia or China from up there. That it was one planet we need to work together beyond national boundaries to protect and enhance.

So if Amazon and Virgin Atlantic and Elon Musk want to spend billions upon billions to fly people into space for a look see, I say go for it. Just make sure you take up the president of the U.S., the leader of China, the Russian premier, German chancellor, and a few titans of industry (especially the fossil fuel and chemical ones) up to take a look back. Maybe if even one felt the same way as Collins did, it would be worth the cash. One giant leap even.

News For Kids, But I Like It Too

Not many of us use all the things we were taught back in school. A few weeks ago I touched on things that perhaps should be taught in school but aren’t. However, for all the shortcomings in preparing our youth for everyday life it seems at least a decent portion of our schools do one thing right in stretching the boundaries of the kids’ education beyond prepping for SATS and learning geometry and Shakespeare. They let kids get a little look at “what’s going on” each day. Now, several decades after I last walked out of a high school, this bit of added curriculum has become a part of my daily Monday – Friday routine. I’m talking about CNN 10, which used to be known as CNN “Student News”. I’m not knocking memorizing Vice Presidents or learning sines and cosines, but to me this little daily video seems to be a very good use of kids’ time.

The Atlanta cable network bill it as “compact, on-demand news broadcasts ideal for explanation seekers.” The host, Carl Azuz, enthusiastic and the apparent Prince of Puns, describes it as “a right down the middle explanation of the day’s events”. Both seem accurate descriptions. Essentially, the daily ten minute clip looks at three or four stories, including some of the major news events, here and elsewhere, with explanations of what and why. As well they throw in scientific developments at times, and a few “Feel good” stories, be they just flat out funny or ones which are inspirational, like meeting Chris Stout. Stout spearheaded a project to provide little houses for formerly homeless vets in Kansas City. A few days back they showcased a cafe in Indiana that gives back to the community…and free coffee to those who do good around town. A new pilot project many large companies are getting behind to deliver their products (from Axe deoderant to Haagen Daaz ice cream) in returnable, reusable metal containers? Learned about it on the student news.

My first introduction to the news clips came about three years back when my sweetie decided her teen daughter should watch it to get a better idea of what was going on in the world. She no longer does that now that the kiddo is older and busier with a part-time job, but after a month or two, I found I missed the segments. Designed for teens or not, they are pretty decent little updates. I’ve learned more about Brexit from CNN10 than from all the newspapers and network news shows I’ve encountered, learned about the horribly bad economy in Venezuela and how it effects the people there a week or two before I saw any mention of it on TV news or in Time. When it comes to national events like the recent government “shutdown”, they inform about what’s happening while giving equal time to both sides – Democrat and Republican – without picking “right or wrong”.

Given the polarization of the public these days and the lack of in depth understanding of complicated problems on the world stage, I rather wish our adult workplaces might get on the bandwagon and have the staff take a look so that we all might be a bit better informed and understanding.Maybe have something more to talk about around the proverbial water cooler than if Kato or Tom Green will be booted out of the Big Brother house. 

I probably won’t soon be refreshing my memory on how to figure out sines and cosines, nor studying to be capable of naming the pre-Agnew VPs (pre-Agnew? Who am I kidding? I have no idea who was Vice President for Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.). But this is one piece of schoolwork I might never graduate from.