The World Interviews Me About My Future Plans by Miriam Sagan

The world asks:
Do you feel confident that it is safe to return to normal activities?

Me:
Let’s break that down.

The world:
OK

Me:
I always feel confident. I’m naturally bossy. I’m confident when I’m right and when I’m wrong. In Iceland with my daughter I led us, confidently, to the old harbor in freezing wind. We were headed the other way, to the hot springs swimming pool. I have dyslexia, but remain confident. So I’d say confidence and being right are not the same thing.

The world:
How about safe?

Me:
I never feel safe. I’m an anxious person, from an anxious cultural group. In my Jewish family we claim—the anxious gene survives. Sitting around during a pogrom, figuring, well, it might all work out. That gene pool, not so much. I usually live by calculating my odds—what risks can I take? This has served me well.

The world:
Moving on…what about normal activities?

Me:
More semantic problems here. What is “normal?” I probably shouldn’t talk about my weird habits. Is it normal to nap as much as possible, go to Tune-Up Cafe every few hours, take two baths a day, change my clothes again, and eat cold cereal for supper? If so, then yes, I’ll resume my normal activities because I have not given them up.

The world:
I’m finding you a little bit annoying.

Me:
Sorry. I find myself annoying, too.

The world:
And what in God’s name are you wearing?

Me:
A housedress.

The world:
Didn’t your mother HATE those?

Me:
Yes. But my maternal grandmother wore them. Thank you, bubbe!

The world:
A housedress—and I see you have pockets and snaps—is depression-era. Is this economic forecasting?

Me:
Not necessarily. I always wear them.

The world:
And you are going to clean house?

Me:
No. I like to wear them when I write poetry. I have three new ones for spring.

The world:
Well, enjoy your “normal” activities.

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.

If I Never Hear The Word “Influenza” Again It Will Be Too Soon

My old and dear friend Lawrence Duggan is a professor at University of Delaware. He’s teaching some history of plague (also wrote excellent informative posts here). He asked me for an account of my near death brush with the flu when I was twenty-one years old.

Here is what I told him:

So…1976. Flu. Either seasonal or perhaps swine flu, which was in NJ late 1975, as was I. As best I can recall the info–my immune system went into overdrive, attacked my lungs. Pleurisy, pneumonia, collapsed lung, and empyema (anaerobic bacteria in lung). Old fashioned treatment–surgery to drain, antibiotics, manual pulmonary therapy, mask with moist oxygen. Yes, right lung, bottom third is dead, and I guess about 50% capacity in that lung. Also crippled on right side, bad leg, constricted arm, ribcage in odd position, everything in digestive track a few centimeters too high.

They told me: you will never sing professionally (Vast relief from potential audience!).

Whenever I get an X-ray I have to prep the tech to not freak out.

I was declared terminal, docs told my distraught parents I’d die, but then…voila, did not! So yes, a healthy respect for flu is important. To be honest, I’m frightened every flu season and am quite used to washing my hands, swabbing everything, etc.

***

I was touched to be asked, because although this is a crucial part of my personal history it was so unique and unusual that when I share it I feel like I’m translating from another language.

Now everyone is speaking that language: virus, fever, lung, organ failure.

And I’m flipped out. What once was personal–even private–is the new normal. And with it, opinions about the flu. The flu is NOTHING compared to COVID-19. Or, conversely, coronavirus is like a bad flu–that is, nothing.

Well, I’ll always fear and respect the flu. It came close to killing me, and changed me forever. Yes, there is a vaccine, but every flu season for over forty-five years I’ve lived in dread, and yet taken the risks I needed to take to make a living, be a parent, live a life. And I’ve had the flu twice in that time–although this is pretty great odds.

Influenza was my own private war. I know a lot about the after effects of a virus. But this pandemic has reinforced the isolation of my experience, no matter how much empathy I feel.

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.

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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.

I Am Not You by Miriam Sagan

My dreams are normally weird, not more so. If they got weirder I’d want to stop sleeping!

Seeing people post “just stay home” over and over makes me sad and alienated–as I’m sure it does other essential workers. We’re all on different paths. I wish there was some acceptance of this. My essential job isn’t scary or high risk–but many are. I’d like to see much more respect for that.

My drawers were already tidy except for the ones that never will be no matter how long I am in lockdown. That is to say, I wasn’t putting things off before and I’m not particularly motivated now.

I don’t hate anyone. I’m creeped out by violent revenge imagery, even if aimed at Trump. I really believe hatred is a poison that will harm me. Anger is a feeling–it comes and goes. It can lead to justice. I don’t mind anger but I truly avoid hate.

I don’t watch television. I never have. Why start now? I didn’t even see the Twin Towers come down until decades later, by mistake, in a motel room.

This isn’t a creative time for me. However, I am writing. And brushing my teeth.

I get dressed every day. And I enjoy it. My outfits resemble what I wore in Japan as an artist in resident a few winters go, in a very cold house. Where the administrator like to drop in early en route from the station. She’d compliment my dark green house dress and lavender cardigan. I’m dressed for comfort, but presentable.

I’m not writing about the pandemic. I’m writing about trauma, isolation, and healing (coincidence?)–a novella I started almost three years ago.

I will avoid a ventilator at any cost. (This pre-dates coronavirus). Twenty-five years ago I had to take my by then brain dead husband off a ventilator, with the help of three clergy people. That was enough to give me a permanent aversion.

I miss everything, mostly the neighborhood–peeking in at the glassblowing studio, shopping the consignment store, drinking coffee at Tune-Up.

I won’t hate or criticize people who act less isolated than I am.

I doubt the Democratic Party can “save” me. I just don’t like politicians. Yes, some are “better” but I’m not looking for a leader or Big Daddy.

I do not understand the epidemic, nor will I claim to. Sure, I wrote an undergrad term paper on syphilis tracing and I lived through AIDS in San Francisco. I’m not an authority, authorities don’t agree, and I don’t need a passing grade. I am holding on to my critical thinking, though.

It seems I’m an extrovert after all.

Safety as a concept has never been real to me–as a Russian Jew, as a woman, as an artist. So I don’t miss it, or aspire to it.

Netflix cannot help my boredom.

Being disabled now is a lot like being disabled any other time–vulnerable, worrisome. Yet a source of strength–I’m quite adjusted to spotting prejudice and to not getting my own way all the time. I want to say it is more difficult to get care–but it is always difficult.

I am living without solutions.

***
Acceptance is more important to me now than ever. This is not a war. I don’t hate the virus or any pathogen. I hope you, reader, can accept what both does and does not resonate with you. I’m exhausted by self-righteousness and certainty in any camp. Meet me in the gray zone!

And how are you?

Positive & Negative by Devon Miller-Duggan. A Look at Right Now.

Editor’s note: Devon Miller-Duggan has her loyal readers here. We’ve journeyed through her chronicles of her mother’s decline and death, enjoyed her dark wit on the topic of the “poetry business,” and enjoyed the fact that her Christmas decorations are often up for a…long…time. Now she reports from her moment in the pandemic.

***

Positive: Delaware has been mostly competent, though the guv took a little while to get serious. There’s an OLD “Candid Camera” routine in which they pretended to close Delaware. Now it’s for real. Also, if you binge “West Wing,” you notice how often they mention Delaware.

Negative: My God, you miss your students.

Positive: Your students, if you’re lucky, will help you deal with the tech involved in switching mid-term to Zoom & Google Docs, and you will love them even more than you did

Negative: Even though you grew up as an only child with two working parents, and are mostly an introvert, you will not like this. The fact that teaching is eating up more time than it “should” and making masks is eating up the rest will not help.

Positive: My mother died 18 months ago and I am not having to handle her care, or, much more importantly, try to calm her fears or explain the sudden absence of her aides or her ability to go out to breakfast with friends. Nor will I have to live in terror of having to enforce her DNR.

Negative: EVERY time I get lotion on my hands, I immediately do something that necessitates washing them again.

Positive: My 3-year-old grand-daughter and her lovely parents share the house with us. She is 90% sparkle. And my other grandkids are close enough that I can go look at them from a safe distance, though not hugging them is very non-positive.

Negative: my mental health is quite iffy–that is, less stable than I’d like. I just copied Miriam here, since the same is true.

Positive: All three trees we planted before I had surgery for breast cancer 18 months ago have budded.

Negative: No way of having known back in Sept. when we planned it, but this might not have been the best semester to team-teach a course on Holocaust History & Literature.

Positive: The swing set/play set we built, with much hassle and fuss, in the back yard for the grandchildren is getting a LOT of use by the 3-year-old and looking like a really good investment.

I Came Close to Getting Into A Fight On Facebook

An acquaintance posted something about elections that was at odds with the politics of their cohort. Well, the hysterical outpouring of response couldn’t have been greater than if the person in question was threatening kittens, throwing chocolate truffles out the window, or letting a baby play with power tools. This person was wrong wrong wrong.
What strikes me is not the topic, but the impulse to social control. Full disclosure–I don’t care deeply about electoral politics and am a reluctant if dutiful voter. I’m of the power corrupts school of thought, and I can’t really believe that most of our elected officials are ethical in the sense that I’d recognize in daily life. Also, I really try to not allow events beyond my control to dominate my personal actions and pursuit of happiness.
So if you say you might not vote in a particular election I regarded it the way I do folks who say they never volunteer or give philanthropy. I don’t think it is the greatest good, but I assume you have your reasons. Which you are more than entitled to. I’m not against the social contract–please drive the speed limit and get vaccinated (actually both these things might save your own life) but I’m not going to get hysterical if your notion of how to live differs from mine.
The inability to accept views we disagree with is pandemic–and not part of any solution. The idea that certain things are EVIL and that all right minded people agree on a course of action is kind of…fundamentalist…medieval…fanatical…I doubt anyone is going to really argue with me, until I link to Facebook, but thank you for reading!