Back To The ’60s

2020 has been just about the worst year imaginable so far, but over the last few days it has acquired a definite ’60s vibe, too.  With riots happening in the streets of American cities in reaction to the shocking and outrageous death of George Floyd, it’s like 1966 and 1967 and 1968 all over again.  Even middle-of-the-road Columbus has seen its share of disturbances.

636178516108265271-dfpd24221Civil unrest seemed pretty commonplace when I was a kid.  Whether it was “race riots,” Vietnam War protests that got out of hand, reactions to the assassinations of leading figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, or random civil disobedience, smoke in the air and tear gas canisters on the ground were a familiar sight.  Authorities would warn about what might happen during the “long hot summer,” and rioting and looting seemed to occur as a matter of course.  Footage of people throwing Molotov cocktails, smashing windows, and running with armfuls of loot from burning buildings were staples of the nightly TV news broadcasts and morning news shows.  And authorities learned the hard way that when a population gathers in sufficiently large numbers and decides to go on a building-burning rampage, there’s not much you can do about it — without applying overwhelming force and ramping up the tension even further.

Although rioting seemed like an annual occurrence during the ’60s, eventually the riots stopped.  Unfortunately, they left behind areas of gutted buildings and ruined, derelict neighborhoods that in some cases still haven’t recovered, more than 50 years later.  And the small businesses that are typically the focus of the burning and smashing and looting often don’t come back, either.  Drive around modern Detroit if you don’t believe me.

Disturbances happen when people feel that they are being treated unfairly and that they have nowhere to turn for justice.  They protest because they feel its the only way to make their voices heard.  Mix in some people who are looking to gain some cheap thrills and personal advantage from the unrest, and you’ll have looting and arson, too.

The best way to begin to deal with the issue in this case is to let the system work and do justice in the terrible case of George Floyd.  Giving people the feeling that things are getting back to normal, by lifting some of the coronavirus restrictions, might help, too.

Sketchy Stuff First

When you’re stuck at home by governmental edict and need to be mindful that you can’t simply go out at your whim to replenish your supplies, what is your approach to how to address the available resources?  More specifically, do you consume the good stuff first, knowing that at the end of your shut-in period your future self will be dealing with the dregs and cursing your present self for total selfishness, or do you hit with the sketchy items first, secure in the knowledge that your future self will be reveling in the good stuff later and thanking you for your foresight and sacrifice?

I always adopt the latter approach — which is why, last night, I tried my first few cans of “hard seltzer.” 

I’ve seen younger people trying this stuff, but had never been tempted myself.  A global pandemic and mandatory isolation periods have ways of imposing their will upon such preferences, however.  A few cans of the stuff were in the refrigerator, and since I wanted to preserve our limited supply of beer and wine, I decided to give it a try.  Last night I sampled the “ruby grapefruit” and “black cherry” flavors.

In looking at the can, I can see why people might drink this stuff.  It’s low carb, and low calorie.  It’s also low taste — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about an over-the-top flavor like “ruby grapefruit.”  I braced myself for the first few sips, thinking that it might be horribly cloying.  Fortunately, the folks at White Claw took a more subtle approach.  It’s still the flavor of grapefruit (not exactly the taste I’m going for in an alcoholic beverage) but at least it’s not at the pungent, hit you over the head level.  That said, in my view the black cherry flavor was more potable — although it still isn’t a flavor I would choose for an adult drink, and reminded me more of the kind of beverage you’d get as a kid at an amusement park.

Flavors aside, the hard seltzer is definitely a light and refreshing beverage, and as someone who’s gone the low-carb route before in the desperate twilight struggle against unnecessary pounds, I can see its appeal from that standpoint.  It’s not going to replace a cold beer in my book, but it’s not undrinkable.  Once we get out of the house and get a chance to hit the grocery store, I might actually try some other flavors, and stock the refrigerator with a few cans in anticipation of the next global pandemic.

A World Very Far Away

It’s been foggy the last few days.  This morning the fog is so thick that the rising sun is about as bright as a street lamp looming over the harbor, as the picture above shows.  When it comes to fog, Maine could give Sherlock Holmes’ London a run for its money.

As this morning’s sun shows, fog is a natural shield of sorts.  It obviously blocks your view of things that, on a clear day, you could see distinctly, and narrows your universe to the small realm that you can see.  It swallows and engulfs sound, too.  Sound waves fight to get through the legions of water droplets in the air, then just give up and fade away.  The silence of a foggy day is about as silent as the busy modern world can get.  Your ears will search diligently for any scrap of noise, simply not believing that it can be so quiet.  Even the sharp barking of a neighbor’s dog become muffled and softened.

It’s odd to be encased in fog as the country slowly emerges from a global pandemic.  On a foggy Maine hilltop, the coronavirus, and the harms and divisions it has caused, seem very far away.

Masked Driving

We took a long drive this week.  It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well.  In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.

b3effd_ltptolls020411It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep.  Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring.  As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend.  In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars.  By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between.  The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction.  As a result, we made excellent time.

The lack of traffic is one reason why the Cannonball Run record — the wholly illegal effort to make the fastest drive from the Red Ball garage in New York City to the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California — has been broken repeatedly during this national shutdown period.  The new record now stands at less than 26 hours, which is mind-boggling and makes you wonder about the top speed reached as the cars zipped through the wide-open western states.

But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus.  As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch.  Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle.  You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities.  (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.)  At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.

You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through.  Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her.  It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology.  For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.

In all, a very memorable trip.  The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.

The Crowd Factor

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How many industries will be put out of business by the coronavirus pandemic?  Many people are predicting that movies will be one of the victims.  I’m hoping that isn’t so.

There is something magical about experiencing things in crowds.  I”m not a fan of Hollywood culture and its enormous phoniness, but no one who’s seen a good movie in a packed theatre can deny that there’s an energy, and a shared communal experience, that simply can’t be replicated by watching something in your living room.  Sporting events are one of those things that really has to be experienced in crowds.  So are movies.

Who here saw Jaws when it was first released in theatres?  And who remembers the hushed stillness and expectation in the crowd when the Richard Dreyfus character went down into the deep to explore the wreck and heard the collective gasp of literally everyone in attendance when the corpse popped out to startle the heck out of everyone?  Or hid their eyes when Quint fought desperately, and unsuccessfully, to stay out of the shark’s huge, unforgiving maw?  Who remembers the thrill that ran through them when the shark’s theme music thrummed through the auditorium, and they knew that another character was about to be launched into the infinite?  For many of us, the theatre experience is part of their collective experience, to be shared and discussed with our friends.

Think of every other movie that had that raw, communal effect on an audience.  Whether your tastes run to slasher films, or science fiction awesomeness, or weepy chick flicks, there is something indefinable, yet very real, about experiencing a movie in a crowded theatre full of people ready to be entertained.  Can we really give up the richness of that experience because of a simple virus?  Doesn’t doing so take some of the richness out of our lives?

I obviously don’t know whether the film industry will survive the current pandemic.  I just hope that it does, because I don’t think watching Netflix in your living room holds a candle to the crowd-watching experience.  When the new James Bond movie hits the theatres, I’m going to try to watch it in a theatre with other thrill-seekers.

The Mask Factor

I realized the other day, as I was checking my messages while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, that my iPhone facial recognition software doesn’t work when I’m wearing one of my coronavirus masks.  Like a character in a Lone Ranger TV show, the phone was left dumbfounded and asking:  “Who was that masked man?”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The mask covers a significant portion of your face, including some noteworthy recognition-triggering features — namely, your nose and your mouth.  Our identification of a person’s face is based on the eyes, nose, and mouth working in combination, and the masks are covering up two of those three features.  We’ve been trained since birth to pay careful attention to the facial features of the people we talk to and notice any changes.  And think about how much attention you pay to the mouth, in particular, as you interact with people.  Are they smiling?  Frowning?  Grimacing?  Does the combination of the mouth and eyes indicate that they’re angry?

I thought about the blocking effect of the mask when I went to get a haircut yesterday.  Both my stylist and I were masked — of course — after I had gone through a doorway vetting procedure that included having my temperature taken and answering some COVID-19 exposure questions.  As we talked during the happy haircut, she mentioned that she was trying to be more expressive with her eyes, because people couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or not.  It was true, and I realized that she also couldn’t see my smile.  After that, I tried to be more expressive with my eyes and eyebrows, but the eyebrows especially are not designed for nuanced non-verbal cues.  You’ve got knitted eyebrows, and raised eyebrows, and that’s about it.  Trying to communicate much with your eyebrows is like mugging for a camera.

Masks definitely change things, but we’re just going to have to get used to them because they are going to be a requirement for a while.  I’m going to have to work on adding some additional, unmistakable eye and eyebrow communication techniques to my facial repertoire.

And I guess Apple is going to need to come up with a masked and an unmasked version of the facial recognition software.

Now Among The Tested

The United States has dramatically increased its testing for the coronavirus over the past few weeks.  According to the CDC website, nearly 11 million Americans have now been tested for COVID-19.  Yesterday morning, because I have a medical appointment coming up and getting tested was part of the pre-appointment checklist, I became one of them.

The testing was quick, easy, and efficient.  They’ve set up a drive-through testing facility in one of the rear parking lots of the administration building of the sprawling Mt. Carmel East hospital complex.  Your doctor puts your name on a list and writes you a prescription for the test, and you drive up and wait in your car for your turn.  As people are tested, the car line moves through two lanes of testing that occurs under tents, like cars moving through a toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  When I arrived shortly after the testing facility opened at 8 a.m., I was probably tenth in line, and all told, I think it took me less than a half hour to make it entirely through the process.

When it was my turn I donned my mask and drove through the tent, which was manned by four nurses who thoroughly disinfected themselves after each encounter with someone being tested.  A pleasant and professional nurse who was fully clad in protective gear — helmet, face shield, gown, and gloves — took down my information and then conducted the test.  It was one of the viral tests to determine if I currently have coronavirus, and it consisted of sticking a long Q-tip swab pretty deep into my nostrils, gathering some mucus, and putting it into a plastic bag.  I was told that the sample tested positive for coronavirus, I would be notified, and if the test was negative I wouldn’t be called and should just show up for my appointment.  I never got a call, so I’m apparently currently free of COVID-19.  (The viral test is different from the antibody blood test, which would tell you if you had the coronavirus at some point in the past and have developed antibodies against it.)

News reports on coronavirus typically report raw statistics on how many people have the illness.  Expect to see significant increases in the numbers, simply because more mobile testing stations like the one I used are springing up everywhere.  Given what I saw, I’d guess that my testing facility probably processes several hundred tests each day, and there are similar testing facilities in Columbus and across the country.  We’re going to start to get a lot more data on the coronavirus as a result.