Pandemic Wisdom by Devon Miller-Duggan. TRIGGER WARNING! This is hilarious, and very very scary. You may never see cucumbers in the ordinary way again.

Pandemic Wisdom:

I don’t know that living through a pandemic has taught me a single thing other than the pretty obvious fact that whatever else is wrong in my world and the larger world is worse in the midst of a pandemic. That’s kind of a “duh, bunny-brain” epiphany.

Instacart is my friend. Even the not-so-great shoppers are my friends. I tip well on the basis that folks doing that job are probably not doing it as a first-choice career, not that it’s not perfectly good, useful work, which is more than I can say for…let’s just say “some people” and leave it at that. I have also been told that there are people who don’t tip. I will spare you my opinion of those schmucks. So I can’t say that I have acquired any wisdom, and I’m sure that my character has not improved. This is not, therefore, a post answering the questions Miriam asked. I have learned how to make 3 different kinds of masks, but I don’t think that counts. So here’s my Other Kind of Covid Story:

The only reason I go to the grocery store is that it’s also my pharmacy. I have relationships with the pharmacists. They ask about my family and commiserate with me about the ridiculous co-pay for my anti-depressant and the aches and pains associated with the aromatase inhibitor I take on the 10% chance that it’ll help me not get more breast cancer. And when I do go, I typically pick up a medium-sized pile of groceries—some from a list and some “oooh, I forgot we need that” items. I hate it. People wear flimsy masks, about half the folks seem clueless about how far 6 ft. is, in spite of helpful markings on the floor, and most folks ignore the one-direction-per aisle signs. So I usually come home hating humanity and sure that I have contracted Covid-19. Good thing I don’t need to pick up ‘scripts too often.

I will now just go in, pick up my prescriptions and leave. I’m done. In the course of my most recent trip, not only did I rip the same nail twice (happily not below the quick, but still…), I had my usual fights with the self-checkout machine (I know these are not good for humans who need jobs, but right now I prefer to avoid the cashiers, who can be a bit casual about the mask thing), and, having checked out and paid, I noticed that I had forgotten to get the envelope for one of my grand-daughters’ Valentine’s Day cards and had to park my cart next to the beautifully patient young human who was staffing the self-checkout area and go back across the store to get it. None of this made the trip more than annoying.

What did was the loudly unmasked woman who was probably drunk off her ass–and that on top of being kind of a jerk by nature—who picked up my nice English cucumber, waved it around, planted it in her crotch, and began to fake-masturbate it. Part of me wanted to beat her with the cucumber, but that would not have been fair to an innocent vegetable, and would (like any other form of confrontation) have resulted in her yelling in my double-masked face, up close and too personal. It also would have added considerably to the embarrassment of her (masked and civil) husband and son (brother and nephew…), which was palpable. Along with the twice-ripped nail, the fractious checkout machine, and the forgotten envelope, this was just too bloody much. How messed up do you have to be to do that sort of thing? Pretty seriously, I’m guessing, at a near-cellular level of assholicity. So I’m done with grocery shopping.

Oh, there is one wisdomish-thing. I was seriously torqued for a bit about getting the vaccine. Friends kept posting on FB that they’d gotten theirs, and I got frantic, even staying up one night to try for a timeslot at any of the 39 Walgreen’s stores in my county as if I were trying to buy opening-day tix for the latest Star Trek movie. Then I figured out that all my friends who had their shots had probably registered ahead of me because I was kind of paying attention to another situation that needed lots of energy and focus. And a retired nurse friend who has been volunteering at the State’s big vaccine-events told me a bunch of stories about how they were still working on the 80+ crowd, and the State itself (probably in an attempt to save the sanity of the folks working the Department of Health phone lines) sent out a letter saying, in several ways, “the reason you haven’t gotten your vaccine yet is MATH,” which I found oddly calming. I am not, by nature, a patient person (though I can be passive—but that’s a different thing altogether, appearances to the contrary). But I have developed a sort of calm about when I’ll get my “Fauci Ouchie.” It’ll happen. I’m registered with 4 different agencies. One of them will come through, and, though my semester starts in two weeks, I am not teaching in person, so my exposure is not going to be any greater than it is right now. I guess I’ve learned some limited patience. And not to walk away from my grocery cart and leave cylindrical vegetables where serious eejits can get to them.

My husband-the-historian, who is a medievalist, started teaching a course a couple of years ago called “Plagues & Peoples” that covers more than the Black Death. His father lost a sister to meningitis and survived, but lost his hearing. His mother lost hers to scarlet fever. Or the other way ‘round—I’d check, but he’s snoring away contentedly in the next room. The point is that for most of human history there’s been a barrage of bugs trying to get us. Covid-19 is particularly nasty in many worrying ways (okay, terrifying), and it will mark a generation or three.

But I’m more afraid of the Cucumber Beast than of the disease itself. Humans are wonderful. Humans are gawdawful crudbuckets. Being patient as my state’s medical system turns itself inside out to get us vaccinated feels reasonable and sort of peaceful (or maybe Miriam’s fatalism is rubbing off on me after 40+ years of friendship) The Cucumber Beast (I ended up walking back to the entrance of the store where they keep the sanitizing wipes and wiping its plastic-sealed surface down), well, I’ve written her into my permanent narrative of the pandemic, which is as much revenge as I can safely and decently exact.

Sukkah: Gimme Shelter by Miriam Sagan

I’m not one to retreat from the world. Yes, I can spend long stretches of time alone in remote settings. After all, I twice spent a week in a trailer in an abandoned air force base in Great Basin. Nothing but howling dogs in the distance and three million acres of bombing range.
However, I experience this as being CLOSE to things–myself, the environment, poetry, even what I’ll call G-d. It’s the difference between loneliness and solitude–solitude being a relationship to the unseen, not a lack.
So I’ve hated the idea of being in lockdown during the pandemic. Locked down with what? Fear, an exaggerated emphasis on my own safety, a compliance with rules? Sorry, this does not sound like me.
I’ve done my best to not be locked away from my world–physically, emotionally, spiritually. I’m always practical, so I’ve given in to the demands of the time. But I’m connecting to nature–from the mountains to my veggie garden. To people–from my family to childhood friends. To literature and art and music. To my spiritual support group. And yes, to the sometimes sad often diminished neighborhood that I live in–and love as much as if it were a person. The details are my own, and might not be universally useful. However, I’m trying.
A friend very kindly said to me–“You’ve created your own life within the pandemic.” I was truly encouraged that she’d noticed my effort.
So I think of myself as living within a tent. It’s not my usual life, but it is serviceable. It is a kind of sukkah. “Sukkah” is defined as a temporary shelter covered in natural materials, built near a synagogue or house and used especially for meals during the Jewish festival of Succoth. It can also be used to describe the sheltering effect of the Shekinah, the feminine aspect of the divine.
So, what is going on in my sukkah? One very important thing to me in life are those seemingly random or casual exchanges that often contain meaning or wisdom. I’ve recently seen a very large man happily catch a very small fish. Been complimented on my tie-dye hippie dress by a stranger. And been given some important personal advice by the laundromat lady.
Gimme shelter.

Pandemic Observations, Episode 2 by Richard Feldman

3.  The Persistence of Personality and Belief

I wasn’t surprised by the range of pandemic explanations that I uncovered in my research.  In a past blog post, I lamented the realization that consensus reality was a myth.  I had observed that people expressed distinct belief systems or narratives about the world to which they maintained loyalty even in the face of what other people might consider incontrovertible contrary evidence.

My views of the world, including the current pandemic, have been influenced by my father, whose work was centered on the statistical analysis of health data.  In school I studied probability and statistics, essential tools for the attempted practice of an analytical way of understanding the world sometimes called critical thinking or scientific method.  In the attempt to think critically, I’ve tried to recognize the cognitive biases in my thought processes as well as to stay aware of both my past wrong conclusions and my ongoing areas of ignorance.  However, I’ve observed that it’s ultimately impossible to evaluate one’s own thought processes objectively.

So, like other people I’ve brought my personal beliefs and narratives, along with the rest of my personality, to the current crisis.  I have not believed that the pandemic arrived as a sign of coming judgment, the end of days, or God’s wrath, a nefarious lab project, a Bill Gates-headed conspiracy, a 5G wireless side effect, or an astrological alignment.  I have believed, among other things, that:

a.  epidemics or pandemics of pathogens of various sorts (both new and reappearing) have affected humanity periodically over thousands of years;

b.  the onsets of epidemics or pandemics have been somewhat random, although what has happened with them may have been influenced by patterns of living conditions and travel at the time the pathogen appeared; and

c.  societal choices made both before and during epidemics or pandemics has sometimes been a major influence on how they played out.

I’ve been disappointed but not surprised that so many people have stuck with narratives where the pandemic was a consequence of some other thing that they considered more important.  I could understand that buying into a narrative where the disease itself is the major agent has been hard, as the group of so-called experts attempting to explain it to us laypeople have disagreed with one another and steadily changed their stories.  Even some believers in critical thinking and the scientific method must be have been having a hard time dealing with how much the “experts” disagreed with each other.  I’ve been following a series of weekly reports surveying projections of numbers of Covid-19 cases and fatalities by university public health faculty and other knowledgeable people compiled by a couple of biostatisticians at the University of Massachusetts, and every week the numbers have been all over the place, with many of the participants making it clear that they didn’t have a well-defined idea of what was going to happen weeks or months out.  People don’t turn to experts wanting to hear that the experts have no clear idea of the answer.  I’ve thought that this disconnect has been one reason for so many people sticking with non-science-supported narratives.  (On the other hand, I’ve seen multiple plausible analyses that suggested that people have been in better agreement and anti-pandemic campaigns have gone more smoothly in places where politicians have let scientists be the spokespeople.)

I’ve also noted people’s inclination to reject as wrong explanations that they couldn’t understand.  The patriarch of one of our neighboring households assured me confidently that the disease was just a form of the flu.  He and the rest of his household have been strongly anti-mask and have teased me when they’ve seen me wearing one.  Perhaps I’ve envied them in their certainty that they know the answers.  I became accustomed to listening to people speak with authority about things they knew nothing about years ago.  Since the advent of the pandemic, many of those people have continued to embrace the opportunity, but now the stakes have become higher.

Pandemic Observations by Richard Feldman

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”

  1. Prologue

For years I’ve inclined toward a somewhat dark and pessimistic view of general arc of human history, a view that I’ve at least partially shared with Miriam.  Both of our worldviews never completely recovered from the sense of chaos induced by the parade of unsettling, sometimes apocalyptic-seeming events we experienced as we came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Our shared coming-of-age perspectives notwithstanding, for many years after we started living together almost 25 years ago, we had an ongoing debate in which Miriam maintained that human existence was improving overall while I argued that it was getting worse.  I eventually realized that my saying that human existence was getting worse was an overstatement.  (What I really believed was that things were always simultaneously getting both better and worse; however, the faith in long-term improvement that underlay many popular belief systems was not based on reality, but it had the potential to lull people into complacency in the face of a variety of unpredictable threats.)  Eventually, Miriam stopped disagreeing with me, seemingly swayed by the general trend of twenty-first century events.

My view of the historical prospect has always contrasted my predominantly cheery experiencing of day-to-day life.  This predominantly cheery daily existence has probably at least partially been a reflection of my personal temperament, but it has also reflected an awareness that on the whole I’ve been fortunate in both my personal experiences and the times in which I’ve lived.  I’ve lived mostly during times where even large-scale misfortune has been inflicted on a sufficiently local or regional level that it’s been possible for me to avoid it.  Events concurrent with my coming of age as large as the American societal drama that surrounded the war in Vietnam did not end up having a major direct effect on me.

The other side of my awareness that my luck has been good has been the awareness that things could change at any moment.  While not wanting to dump additional misfortune on those coming after me, I have repeatedly wished privately that various bad things would hold off until after I was dead or at least no longer able to notice them.

Although a viral pandemic probably wouldn’t have been the first macro-catastrophe that would have occurred to me to worry about, I imagine that it would have been in my top five.  Over the years I’ve periodically seen reasonable-sounding discussions of the threat of a viral pandemic that would significantly affect the United States.  Therefore, it didn’t come as a total surprise to me to find one finally arriving in my neighborhood and myself having to decide how to deal with this particular time.

So I, like most of humanity, find myself faced with Frodo’s challenge of suddenly having to confront an unpleasant situation not of my own making.  However, unlike in most works of fiction, I’ve become used to the idea that, even facing a worldwide pandemic, we’ve all been going around living in very different stories from one another.  Pretty much every general statement that I might have made about the pandemic I’ve heard or read someone disagreeing with.  Not only does YMMV apply even though our lives have all been dominated by the same thing, it seems that everyone’s mileage has varied.   I’ve found that reflecting and writing has enhanced my understanding of my personal experience; perhaps my reflections will help readers have perspective on their own experiences.

  1. Alternative Views

What do I mean when I say that we’re living in very different stories from one another?  From what I consider reliable sources, I’ve learned that seemingly tens of millions of Americans believe that:

  1. The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic fallout are signs of coming judgment, a wake-up call for us to turn back to faith in God, or both;
  2. the coronavirus pandemic and global economic meltdown are evidence that we are living in what the Bible calls the ‘last days’; or
  3. COVID-19 was created in a laboratory either intentionally or accidentally.

Less popular but still well-documented views are that COVID-19 is a conspiracy against anti-vaxxers spearheaded by Bill Gates, that it’s caused by 5G wireless networks (seemingly most popular in the United Kingdom, where arsonists have been enthusiastically trying to destroy the 5G infrastructure), that it’s caused directly by climate change, that it can be explained by astrology, and that it was originally brought to China by an American, most likely a cyclist competing in the World Military Games in Wuhan last fall.

From reading about these alternative views, I could understand why a lot of people haven’t really cared what Anthony Fauci was thinking and that my beliefs were probably only shared by a relatively small minority.  However, over the years I’ve adjusted to the idea that most Americans are living narratives that don’t particularly agree with mine. Even if they don’t respect my belief system, I’m still fond of it.


Editor’s note: Expect a continuation from this writer later this month. Miriam’s Well is delighted to welcome back Richard Feldman as a favorite blogger! It’s hard for me to find “good” things during the pandemic–but his writing is one of them. Plus his presence as my spouse.

Quality of Life by Miriam Sagan

I have some breaking news–
You cannot control other people
You cannot see the future
Extensive research on my part has led me to this conclusion!

The only thing you have a crack at controlling is yourself.

As a person who almost died at 21 (45 years ago) and who has chronic health issues and as an adult who took care of my parents with dementia etc. I have thought a lot about “quality of life.” You don’t need to be dying to deserve it. Sick, anxious, broke…whatever the burden, we can still pursue happiness, whatever that means to us.

More than one thing is happening every moment. In the middle of a pandemic you could lose a friend or member of your family to something unrelated–cancer, heart attack, a misunderstanding. Or to something tangential–suicide, domestic abuse, addiction. Or you could fall in love, experience an awakening, do one of the greatest good deeds of your life, create something beautiful. Or on a simpler note, your houseplants might bloom, you might have fun with the cat, love a book, or hear from an old friend.

Fear–and panic–create the false illusion that we know what is going to happen. We don’t. I’m particularly prone to this–just call me Sister Rosa like my hood’s storefront psychic used to be. And often I’m right–the happy couple (we had such fun dancing the hora) did indeed get divorced. The teenager was indeed a nightmare. However, if I’m honest, I have lost 100% of the bets I’ve made with my husband Rich. Such as–Hillary Clinton would be president. And–our annoyingly tardy friends would never make it to the party.

Luckily, I always bet the same thing–a weekend at Buffalo Thunder Resort. Where we can swim, eat, hike, and hang out on a balcony…and even go to the margarita festival. However, it does add up.

But hey, since I’m thinking about quality of life, it is worth it.

So, a few days ago, I asked myself bluntly–what if I had two months to live? I can’t jet off to Paris under the current circumstances, nor do I want to. Because, within reason, I’ve done what I wanted for the past forty-five years. When I walked out of the Beth Israel hospital in 1976 with a missing lung, massive scarring, and a crippled right side I knew everything was going to be different. It took a while to dawn on me, but then it did–no straight academic career, no east coast life, no uptight guys, no deferring pleasure. For a while it made me hedonistic–which I still am, in an old lady way. Luckily I enjoyed writing, raising a child, teaching, and a spec of housekeeping too.

My program won’t change much with pandemic. I won’t say what I’m doing–maybe you’ll find me too loose, or too uptight. Too altruistic, too materialistic, too driven, too lazy. But essentially I must set my own agenda, and not allow anyone else to do that for me. I’m doing what I like, within the given circumstances, just as I always have.

And I encourage you to pursue your own happiness. I hope someday to return to Buffalo Thunder.