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Journal of the Plague Year (#4)

Berkeley, 13 April 2020 — It had to happen. And now it has.

People, not statistics or anecdotes, have died.

They’re people, caught up in the pandemic, who my family knew.

One, in his early forties, died on Long Island, NY, just three hours after being tested.  He’d been symptomatic for a few days.  Two previous tests had been negative.  This one wasn’t.  Now his grieving friends and family have numerous questions.   What kind of tests were the first two?   Are there demonstrably varying results from different tests?  What determines just who gets what?  Do outcomes vary?  How?  Why?

We seem to be in a triangle of dysfunction. Testing; ventilators; face masks.  One day there were said to be enough materials for what was expected to be the size of this emergency.  The next day, the materials had disappeared. Or were found to be defective.  Or were being correctly located and handled, but were hoarded and traded by speculators.

Then, almost overnight, the focus seemed to shift to individual responsibility.  Physical (“Social”) distance.  Shutting things down.  “Targeted” measures.  Abandoning hoarding. “Reopening”

Finger pointing is a constant.  All kinds of people: health professionals, elected officials, fiction and non-fiction writers, said: we told you so! ( In fact many long dead people also told us so! )  “An array of figures,” shouts the NY Times in a long Sunday article “identified the threat, sounded alarms, and made clear the need for aggressive action.”

President Trump called them “alarmist.”  And continued to hold long, daily “briefings” replete with “messaging and confident predictions of success.”  “Commanders” of groups called, or acting as, task forces, came and went.  One day it was all Vice-President Mike Pence.  Then Matthew Pottinger, succeeded by Steve Mnuchin and Mike Pompeo.  Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, uniquely unqualified for such power and authority, was promoted a week earlier as the go-to guy who could make it all happen better.  This week he’s barely mentioned once, in passing (paragraph 93 of 98) as the Times “tick-tocks” the mess Trump enabled and empowered.

The other death that touched our family this week was that of Alby Kass, an 89-year old Sonoma County social and political activist.  I knew him as a strong supporter of KPFA and worker for environmental rights, anti-discrimination measures, education (he taught in public schools for more than 20 years) and the development and promotion of the arts.  He was a co-founder of a Klezmer Music Festival. As well as the proprietor of the Riverlane “Resort” in Guerneville.  As in the Long Island case, diagnosis was followed quickly by death.  

Family and friends couldn’t interact with him during the quarantine, which is a common element in the end-of-life scenarios we’re getting endlessly.  It’s frightening beyond bearing, especially for those of us in high-risk demographics and situations.  Any effort at effective consolation is conspicuously absent from the blather lathered out daily by Trump and his acolytes.

Alby died as I was finishing reading “The Dairy Restaurant,” a multi-country, multi-issue, exhaustively and thoroughly researched work of non-fiction by New York writer and teacher Ben Katchor. There is no link between the pandemic and “The Dairy Restaurant.”  Which is why I deliberately plucked it from one of the book piles that teeter throughout my house.  I had a main motive for selecting this work from among the dozens of books forming piles on every available surface in my house. Escapism.  

Katchor wonderfully traces the phenomenon of “eating out,” by choice or necessity. He artfully equates much of the dairy restaurant phenomenon (most, although they called themselves such to capitalize on positive associations weren’t, or were only partially meat-free) with a much more tragic syndrome.  The need for Jews to survive in a world which for centuries treated them as undesirable “others.” A “faith”-based discrimination which culminated in the insanity of exterminationism. Katchor’s book does for those of us seeking escape from the screaming, crying, frightening “Breaking News!” CD-19 TV the opportunity to…listen to  stories!

The “long and complicated” narrative he presents thoroughly depicts the “history of cultural antagonisms, economic power struggles and theological differences” between Jewish and non-Jewish sects over the centuries.   Which resulted in “the rise of a class of scholars, scribes, and lawmakers” who eventually through often quarrelsome discussions and texts, devised a code of no fewer then 613 commandments that a fully committed Jew must observe.  And also resulted in many non-Jews thinking Jews were crazy to try to live with such strictures.

One person’s craziness can be another person’s enlightenment, of course.  And calling someone, or someones, “crazy” is to set them up for harm, sometimes institutionalized.  But despite knowing this well, a group of  several hundred legal and medical mental health experts is calling for President Trump’s immediate removal.  Dr. Bandy X Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale Medical School leads the group (see 4/8/2020 for details). 

Their hair on fire, they’re trying to organize a movement.  Their statement begins, “We, the undersigned mental health professionals, believe in our professional judgment that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States. And we respectfully request he be removed from office, according to article 4 of the 25th amendment to the Constitution, which states that the president will be replaced if he is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.’”

The two hundred-plus signatories (the number is growing) have among them recognized academic and medical experts.  They worked for six months, using hundreds of pages gleaned from Trump’s utterances to draw their conclusion.  Their work is the basis for the documentary, “Unfit.”  Which had the bad fortune to be scheduled for release in early March.  For a now indefinitely postponed showing in a closed theater near you.  Or it could appear – dream on! – via PBS stations.  If those tireless purveyors of Britcoms, cooking shows, antique collections, infomercials disguised as fund drives, and kiddie cartoons could be somehow convinced that the topic is topical.  (Which of course it is. But PBS’ last gasp at regularly presenting such invaluable material died with Bill Moyers, about a decade ago.)

From The Dairy Restaurant: “Alfred W. Dennett was already in the quick lunch business in Boston in 1883.  By 1897 he had a chain of fourteen restaurants from NY to California.  An ardent supporter of the Temperance movement, he decorated his Park Row branch with religious mottos and required waitresses to attend religious sermons at a stated time each day in an on-site chapel.  The back of the menu boasts, 'One quart of the richest cream is added to every can of milk used in this establishment.'  In 1907 Dennett was found wandering in the Piedmont Hills section of Oakland, California, a pillowcase wound around his head, yelling ‘Glory! Glory!’  A failed mining investment had driven him into insanity.”

What’s brought Trump to wherever he now is on the mental health spectrum is devastatingly laid out in “The Advocate” (3/20/20):

Trump was a child of privilege and a child-adult of privilege who has never suffered, never experienced any personal suffering, never lived paycheck to paycheck, never worried about how he was going to pay for his children’s meals let alone their education, never worried about trying to keep a roof over his family’s head, never had to deal with any illness within his immediate family that was life-threatening, and on and on and on.

He cannot relate at all to the hardships that are just starting to infect and damage America.

He is misleading us now. He’s misled us for three and a half years, and he's misled the public all of his life. When he says Chinese virus, when he brags about closing our borders before anyone, that he inherited a bad system and he fixed it, that he had no idea that this was coming, that he's all over the testing and it’s going great, that he is going to give us enough medical supplies and ventilators, that he knows all the jobs will come back, and on and on and on. He is not relating, not providing hope, not telling the truth. He’s telling another fairy tale.

He only wants everything he says to be true, so that Donald Trump looks good, the prince on the white horse to the rescue. It’s always been that way, through bankruptcies, failed businesses and real estate deals, shuttered casinos and a failed airline, thousands of lawsuits, independent counsels, impeachment — Trump isn’t to blame because Trump is always right. The knight in shining armor.

That armor is dented, rusting, and decaying. The press briefings are slowly starting to become the rotted, patented presidential press gaggles, where Trump stands in front of the media, spews lies, taunts reporters and tells everyone how great he is.

Thus “Grouchy vs. Fauci” can be seen as merely the latest bout in Trump’s show business career.  Except that now there are very real world consequences.  Like several hundred thousand deaths and traumas.

Soon I’ll run out of pages in “The Dairy Restaurant.”  But I’ve been fortunate enough to order, and my precious neighborhood bookstore (“Mrs. Dalloway’s” on College Avenue in Berkeley) was organized enough to mail to me, a new pile of books!

“Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History” by Helen Epstein.

“The Exhibition Persephone” by Jessi Jezewska Stevens 

“Writers and Lovers” by Lily King

“Revolutionaries” by Joshua Furst

“Scratched” by Elizabeth Tallent

“Threshold” by Rob Doyle

And in French, thanks to a lifetime  of shared passion for things French:

“Dieu et son Ombre” by Genevieve Gennari and “Composition francaise: retour sur une enfance bretonne” by Mona Ozouf.

Finally, having contributed the name of Bandy X Lee to the store of people you almost certainly never heard of, let me offer two more.

Jill Karnofsky is running for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.  If she wins it would further erode Republican electoral domination in that state, which has been maintained through extreme district gerrymandering of election districts, extensive disenfranchisement of mostly urban (i.e. African-American) people, confusion over issuance and counting of absentee ballots, and the inability of the state’s narrowly elected Democratic governor to postpone in-person voting during a peak period of the COD-19 epidemic. (This anti-democratic decision was enabled by no less a body than the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s implications for the November election are obvious. Anything Republicans do anywhere to skew voting in their favor will be OK.)

“Wisconsin: the state where American democracy went to die” headlined the Guardian.  Votes, few as there were – thousands were forced to choose between “stay at home” and “vote” imperatives.  Vote totals are still being tabulated as this is written.  

My stacked books will teeter precariously for another few days.  Though I still have about 80 pages to go in “The Dairy Restaurant.”  And I have to do my daily PT rehabilitation walk.  Passing, as I crawl along on my walker, the Easter Sunday sign board on my sadly closed neighborhood church,  “DO NOT BE ANXIOUS ABOUT ANYTHING.  BUT Phil 4-5” it reads.  They seem to have run out of letters, or space, or inspiration, but a bible-skilled friend looks up the complete citation. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God!”

OK, big G.  Petitions having failed, I now offer my prayer that Jill Karnosky get elected.  And that all who read this stay as safe and healthy as they can. AMEN!

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