Sunday, March 15, 2020

Ennobled and demoralized.

     Stayed home all day Saturday. Following the news online. Reading. Like waiting for a storm. Edie made chicken noodle soup. That helped.
     We see what's coming. Yet it's hard to believe. Walking the dog in the morning I felt ... almost buoyant. That's weird, right? Inappropriate. But understandable too. As a child, I liked storms. And even though I tell myself this will be something bad, it doesn't feel bad, not yet. People are still prattling on about toilet paper. So a disconnect, between the mind and the heart, what I know and what I feel. Which itself is unsettling.
     Human, I suppose. I believe I've been a consistent enough critic of Donald Trump in the nearly five years since he cannonballed into national and world politics that I can make one small observation that may seem in his favor without being accused of apologizing for the would-be tyrant.
     His underplaying the coronavirus threat — saying it was under control, or would quickly pass — is being waved around social media as clear evidence of his utter unfitness to lead. It certainly is. The man is a buffoon, a liar, a traitor, and more. So many flaws it's wearying to even list them.
     However. Closing your eyes to peril is also very human. Routine has a momentum, and we tend to want to keep it going along its intended path, even when there is an obvious bump, or detour, in the road. We don't let go of it without leaving claw marks.
      At least I don't.
      I remember almost 25 years ago, in July, 1995, when the Chicago heat wave was killing people across the city — as with COVID-19, also mostly the elderly — and the medical examiner was holding press conferences, outlining that day's toll of what would be nearly a thousand heat-related deaths in Chicago. Even as the bodies stacked in refrigerated trailers in the medical examiner's parking lot, I distinctly remember looking at the television and wondering, "Now, is this a real phenomenon, or just Donoghue calling every corpse that shows up at Harrison Street a 'heat-related death?' He's a showboat. I wouldn't put it past him. How could it be that many?"
     It was real. This pandemic is real too. Though it doesn't seem real. Not yet.
     Maybe I'm deceived by all the false alarms in the past. The predicted storms that never came. The blizzards that proved to be a dusting. Missed us. I know how people get worked up over threats that are not there, they exaggerate. Maybe that's what causes me to be reluctant to acknowledge the looming disaster. If it's to be a disaster. I'm too aware of the possibilities of panics, mistakes, mass hysteria.
     There's a great story, "The Day the Dam Broke" in James Thurber's "My Life and Hard Times," where he recounts "that frightful and perilous afternoon in 1913 when the dam broke, or, to be more exact, when everybody in town thought that the dam broke."
     Nobody knows how it started—perhaps a young man in high spirits breaks into a trot, or a husband remembers he is late for a lunch date with his wife. In a moment hundreds of people are running for their lives, shouting "Go East! Go East!" Even though the dam hadn't broken and, even if it had, it wouldn't have reached them in the East part of Columbus, Ohio. No matter.
     "The fact that we were all as safe as kittens under a cookstove did not, however, assuage in the least the fine despair and the grotesque desperation which seized upon the residents of the East Side when the cry spread like a grass fire that the dam had given way," Thurber writes.
     Astounding how quickly society shut down over the past few days. Air travel, restaurants, sporting events. Of course the thing feels like a snow day, a lark, when it should feel like ... something else. The calm before the storm. These extraordinary steps are to keep people safe, and I can't be faulted for hoping that they might work. For feeling safe.
     That's the irony here, an irony worth pointing out. The more effectively we wash our hands, avoid crowds, cancel events, etc., the more blunted the pandemic might be, the more we'll feel those precautions were unnecessary, an overreaction. Even though they weren't. We'll never really know how much they helped, or what we avoided. Unless we don't avoid it. Talk about a dilemma. For some Americans, these weeks and months to come will be a time of tragedy. That's a certainty. And for the rest it'll be a story about stores being stripped of toilet paper. That too is par for the course.
    "We were both ennobled and demoralized by the experience," Thurber writes. Sounds about right.

The Thurber story was based on a real event, March 12, 1913



  1. I lived in and around Chicago for half-a-lifetime. I've also lived in Florida and traveled through the deserts of the Southwest. But I've never encountered anything like that '95 heat wave. It was like having hot, wet towels wrapped around your face. The humidity of Florida combined with the heat of Arizona.

    People at the Cub game that day didn't realize the danger until it was too late. Many fans (including my wife) were carried from the bleachers at Wrigley. They carried them downstairs, where victims were laid out like the Confederate wounded in "Gone With the Wind." Why? sales were more important than either health or safety. Alcohol and a heat index of 125 made for an extremely dangerous combination.

    Nobody died of heat stroke that day (on my wife's birthday!), but that routine Cub game could have become an entirely different story. It was a near-miss. Was it mainly greed and the profit motive? Callous indifference? Ignorance? Maybe they just didn't realize the potential for disaster quickly enough to shut off the flow of juice...or just didn't care. Vendors continued to vend. Fans continued to drink until they dropped, and were carried into the air-conditioned spaces below.

    Yet, management HOSED DOWN the bleacher fans before the game began. I went to hundreds of games over a span of three decades. Never saw that before--and hopefully, I never will again. It was probably not for comfort or safety, but to cool off the crowd so they would drink more. One hopes that those in charge will be more enlightened if conditions ever reach those extremes again. But with the price of a brew today, and the number of bodies in those same seats having doubled, I would tend to think otherwise.

    I'm a born-and-bred Chicagoan, so I'm a lifelong cynic. I know the history of my native city,and the ever-present desire to shrug off potential tragedies and cut corners in order to save a few bucks...or to make a lot of them. All too often, a terrible price has been paid. What we are living through right now is Chicago's life story, multiplied a thousandfold. A worldwide pandemic? Middle Ages stuff. 1918 stuff. Never gonna happen like that again, so why the hell worry about it? Cut the budgets, don't pre-plan, don't prepare. Then the bodies start piling up in the refrigerated trailers, and the stores are stripped bare, and the mass freak-out begins. And action is taken. Too little, too late. Again.

  2. The “Great Flu Pandemic” of 1918 coincided with the tragedy of WWI. In Neil’s 2014 column, “I will write to you forever,”, re: a WWI soldier from Chicago, killed in the War, never returning to his betrothed, TWO of the soldier’s brothers died the same year of the flu. (Their father then died of a heart attack just months later.). Two concurrent “wars,” one abroad, and one on the home front, wiping out an entire family.

  3. Dateline Ft. Myers: Two Canadian women visiting their friends in the condo above us just stopped by on their way to the airport. They weren't scheduled to leave today but the Canadian Prime Minister talked of closing the border so they are heading north. They tried to change tickets online and by phone but were unable to reach any airline. They went to the airport on spec, hoping to get home before getting locked out of their home country. Hope they make it. Hope everybody makes it. Well, maybe not everybody.........nudge, nudge, wink, wink!

  4. I fell into conversation with a fellow tourist a few years back who, it turned out was an epidemiologist working for the SDC. The subject of the 1918 flu pandemic came up, and I dismayed my ignorance by suggesting that advances in medical science seemed to make a similar event unlikely. He disagreed, although his scenario was somewhat different from our present circumstances -- bacterial infections from bugs that have become resistant to all our antibacterial drugs.
    I do seem to remember him using a phrase uttered by one of his ilk just the other day: "Not if but when."


    1. I think the “Not if but when” refrain is also the theme of those who think the bugs will eventually out evolve us and triumph until the day they consume the last human and realize that with their food all gone, their demise is next.


    2. Wait, wait...I'm confoozed here...

      "bacterial infections from bugs that have become resistant to all our antibacterial drugs."...that means 'bug' as in illness, infection, or disease, right?

      "those who think the bugs will eventually out-evolve us and triumph until the day they consume the last human"...that means 'bug' as in insect, pest, or vermin, right?

      Same word, different meanings. But the 'bugs' that do us in are not going to be the creeping, crawling, or flying ones, but the other kind. As in viruses like the present one. As in what people have always called "the flu bug"...and when that bug kills enough of us, or all of us, the other "bugs" (insects) will prevail. All hail the mighty cockroach!

    3. Bugs carry bugs. It bugs me that Neil mentioned Trump declaring martial law in today's Tweet column. Shouldn't put a bug in The Cowardly Liars' ear, we could all end up bugged and buggered.

  5. No dilemma. Let's just continue to take rational precautions and assume they are helping. Despite all messaging from our fuhrer and his lap dogs for the last 3+ years, considering the common good and the least fortunate among us seems the best path forward.

  6. Great minds! I too made chicken soup on Saturday.

  7. "The more effectively we wash our hands, avoid crowds, cancel events, etc., the more blunted the pandemic might be, the more we'll feel those precautions were unnecessary, an overreaction. Even though they weren't."

    What would have been somewhat more difficult to imagine when this was written was that many, many people would take lots of precautions for a long time. Pretty effective vaccines would become available more rapidly than might have even been hoped for. Yet, in this benighted country, many other folks would shun both the precautions and the free vaccines. Unbelievably, 3 years after this post, while over 1.1 million people have died in the nation despite the precautions and vaccines, plenty of politically-motivated "do my own research" folks STILL think everything about Covid was an overreaction.


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