Thursday, March 26, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Years, Part the Seventh

Because at this point we could all use something funny.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Sixth

Americans, your president is trying to kill you.

There is no way to put this gently.  You may not want to hear it.  But it is true.  Donald J. Trump wants you dead.  It’s nothing personal, you understand.  He won’t show up at your doorstep with a knife.  He’s far too lazy for that anyway.  But his corrupt, reckless decisions on the coronavirus will do the job just as well.

It’s about money, you see.  And in Trump’s world money is far more important than anything else you can imagine.  More important than human life.  More important than air or water.  More important than the collapse of society within two or three generations from climate change.  More important than any religious faith, though they’re happy to exploit that faith for profit if necessary and right-wing so-called Christians in particular are happy to be exploited.

That’s the thing about Trump supporters – they make the best marks in the world.  Not only are they in on the fact that they’re being conned, they’re proud of it. 

The simple fact is that this president wants you to die to protect his profits.  He’s been pretty up front about that, in fact.  It’s almost refreshing, in a “thank you for confirming my worst stereotypes” kind of way.

The evidence is clear.

He has spent most of this calendar year trying to minimize or ignore the current pandemic despite dire warnings from American intelligence services and governments the world over.  He was briefed on this in January and chose to do nothing because he felt it was a threat to his re-election campaign.  He has lied repeatedly to pretend that this isn’t a crisis.  He continues to do so.

He has repeatedly undercut any effort to prepare or respond to this crisis.  He wasted time that could have been used to prepare for testing, for medical equipment, for any kind of rational response.  He has muzzled and contradicted the experts who know better than he does what needs to happen.  He has cast the states adrift when it comes to obtaining supplies and then outbid them when they tried to do so on their own.  He tried to bribe German scientists to produce a vaccine solely for the US (a fact confirmed by the German government, which has a far better record for accuracy and reliability than the current US administration).  He has misled the public, screwed up the American response to the greatest crisis of the last decade, and consistently behaved like a toddler denied recess at daycare.  He continues to do so.

He has explicitly prioritized profits over the lives of American citizens.  He is concerned only with the health of the Dow Jones and not yours.  He continues to do and be so.

His supporters have done the same.  Seriously – when you have right-wing politicians and media sycophants openly saying that people should be happy to die in order to keep the stock market from sinking any lower, you know you have entered into a world of pure evil.  There is no other way to put that.

And now he is threatening to violate the advice of every single medical professional in the world, every responsible government in the world, and every person in the world with an actual goddamned clue, and lift all of the shelter-in-place orders that are this nation’s last, slim hope of averting catastrophe – a move that will kill literally millions of Americans and ironically enough leave his precious, precious economy even worse off than it would be otherwise.

Because after all, the choice we face is not shelter in place vs get the economy going. 

The choice is shelter in place vs resume normal business and face catastrophic pandemic deaths which will kill not only humans but the economy as well since – contrary to what Trump seems to think – the economy is made of humans, not dollars.

Fortunately he doesn’t have the legal or Constitutional power to lift orders given by governors or local officials (though this has never stopped him from trying before, authoritarian that he has amply demonstrated himself to be, and I’d hate to be the flunky who tries to explain this to him), and equally fortunately many of those governors and local officials – Democrats and Republicans alike – have essentially told him to fuck off.  GOP Texas Governor Greg Abbott, for example – whose Lt. Gov. is one of the idiots openly suggesting we sacrifice lives for the economy – simply said “I will base my decision as the governor of Texas on what physicians say.  If the goal is to get the economy moving, the best thing we can do to get the economy going is to get COVID-19 behind us.”

You can imagine how well this has gone over in the Oval Office.

Trump and his minions are openly saying that they are perfectly fine with 1% of the country – which if you do the math comes to more the three million people – dying unnecessarily from this disease as long as it puts a few more dollars into their already overstuffed pockets.  This is the mark of a tyrant.  This is the mark of an apocalyptic cult leader.  This is the mark of a heartless grifter, a sociopathic narcissist, and a clear and present threat to the security and survival of the American republic.

It is now clear that Trump will have to be removed from any role in the US response to this crisis.  This can be done officially by impeachment (again – maybe this time the Republican Senate will develop a backbone, or a sense of responsibility, laws and morals, or at minimum at least a sense of self-preservation) or through the 25th Amendment.  It can be done unofficially by him being rapidly and completely sidelined by people who actually have a clue what is going on and how to respond to it.   But one way or another it will have to be done.

His minions will need to grow up and learn how to accept reality.  This will likely be the most difficult part of the process.

But the alternative is the needless death of millions of Americans, and through them millions of others around the world.

And that is unacceptable.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Fifth

Notes from Quarantine

1. I’ve seen a number of posts recently on social media showing empty streets where there once were crowds, with commentary on how sad this is.  And I understand that.  To see emptiness where once there were people going about their lives and days is heartbreaking.  But it’s also beautiful.  Millions of people are making sacrifices right now to help people they have never met and will never meet.  They are altering their lives, changing the way they get through the day, to slow down the spread of this disease and give others a chance.  We are strange animals, we humans, but with a capacity for grace that can astonish if you are willing to see it.

2. Of course there are still a few morons who insist that this is all some kind of hoax, that they can see right through it, and they’re going to keep doing what they always do because that will show them.  And if it were just those people who are going to end up on the short end of Darwin’s stick I probably wouldn’t mind so much.  But they are going to hurt a lot of people who do understand the reality and who are working hard to make things better, and that is morally unacceptable.  If you are one of those people you need to grow up and stay inside, you doorknob.

3. I’ve had that conversation, actually.  Citing medical professionals didn’t help.  Citing statistics didn’t help.  Pointing out the reports from people in the middle of it didn’t help.  You know what did help?  Pointing out that every major sports league in the world is now canceled.  Folks, when people are making decisions that are costing them billions of dollars, you know it’s real. 

4. I don’t blame Trump for COVID19.  I really don’t.  This pandemic would have happened no matter what he did, and it would have arrived in the US no matter what he did.  I do however hold him accountable for the corrupt and irresponsible way he chose to respond to it – or, more properly, refuse to respond to it.  American intelligence services were screaming at him to take action back in January.  Italy has been chaotic for weeks.  Everyone knew this was coming here.  And still – STILL – he refuses to take basic steps to ensure the safety of Americans and to prepare this country for the siege it will have to endure whether he wishes it or not.  He has failed in the most fundamental task of any American president – to provide for the general welfare – and this crime should follow him to his grave.  We should be going all out to slow this pandemic down and give ourselves time to avoid being overwhelmed, and the fact that he has refused to accept the reality of this situation and has pawned off responsibility for action to governors and mayors is unforgivable.  This would not have happened if anyone else had won in 2016 – whether Hillary, Bernie, or any of the several hundred GOP candidates.  This would not have happened if George W. Bush were still president, or Barack Obama.  This would not have happened under ANY other president, all of whom had a clear sense that they were leading a nation and were not just shaking down a country for their own enrichment and aggrandizement.  The pandemic would have reached American shores regardless, but the refusal to respond to a clear and present danger to American lives and security is Trump’s moral failure and Trump’s alone.

5. We’ve learned who the essential workers are, at least.  They’re the health care workers, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, teachers, emergency services workers, sanitation workers, utility workers, and all the other people who keep society running in a time of crisis.  They’re not the people getting rich, but they are the ones who matter.  I hope we remember that when all this is over.

Friday, March 20, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Fourth

Well it’s Quarantine Day 7 over here and so far so good.

1. I’ve managed to get a fair amount of work done this week because hey, what else am I going to do?  It’s not as if the cats are going to let me sleep in when they expect breakfast at 7:30 sharp.  But it is nice to keep up routines in a disjointed time such as this.  Otherwise it just feels like you’re floating.

2. I’m kind of hoping that by next weekend when I can go to the store again the panic buying will have subsided a bit and people will just go back to some approximation of their normal grocery shopping.  I expect that there will be some restrictions even so, but it will be better than having to bring a cudgel with me just to get crackers.

3. You know, folks, there are no shortages.  There is only hoarding.  If people would just calm down and stop panic buying things we’d all be a lot better off.

4. Honestly I expect a whole lot of restrictions to come down the pike soon, or I would if I thought the US government had an actual leader instead of the dimwitted, blisteringly incompetent grifter currently screwing up an entire nation’s response to the most serious crisis of the last decade.  Eventually somebody is going to sideline him – his most recent public appearances have been disgraceful embarrassments and even Fox News is starting to call him on his bullshit these days – and perhaps we might get some kind of rational response at that point (Mike Pence is your bog-standard Dominionist theocrat with little use for things like the entire Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, but he’s not stupid, after all) so we’ll see.  In a rational world the US will soon be experiencing national restrictions on travel and gatherings, wartime levels of medical equipment manufacturing, and a general clampdown on patent trolling, profiteering, and other forms of aggravated assholery.  We will experience all of these eventually, of that I have no doubt.  The only questions are how much unnecessary disruption we will need to get to that point and whether we will experience them in time to avoid becoming Italy writ large.  If we get on this quickly the answers will be “none” and “possibly.”  If not, well, who knows.

5. It’s hard to grade essays in such a climate.  Existentially hard.

6. I’ve managed to do a bit of baking to pass the time, so now we have pizzelles.  By request they are not anise, which is the One True Flavor for pizzelles, but rather vanilla and chocolate.  The chocolate ones aren’t half bad, really.  The vanilla ones needed more vanilla.  Maybe next time.

7.  We were supposed to be in Oregon right now, visiting my friend Tiffany.  She came out to see us a few years back and it was our turn.  We were really looking forward to that trip, but so it goes.  Assuming that things calm down at some point, we’ll reschedule.

8. Truly we live in an age of miracles, though.  Kim arranged a giant Zoom call with pretty much all of the extended family on my side, including Fran who joined us even though it was very late in Belgium!  It was just lovely seeing everyone and we will definitely need to do this regularly.  You lose those connections too quickly in a locked down world.

9. The problem with genealogy is that it just keeps expanding.  I’ve been working my way through the family tree that my new-found cousin posted on Ancestry, downloading documents for future examination.  When I started that project I figured it wouldn’t take me that long to get through it, but every time I think I’ve reached an end point I turn a corner and a whole new vista of relatives and ancestors is there staring me in the face.  On the plus side, though, she managed to trace my grandmother’s side of the family back as far as the 1500s in some lines.  I don’t know if those are the ones that led to me directly or not – after a while you lose track and you need to go back and straighten things out in your mind again, which I have not done for a while – but it’s still pretty cool really.

10.  I suspect that the world we enter when all this finally passes will differ in key ways from the one we left to get here.  I further suspect that this will not be welcomed by the people currently holding power.  That will get interesting, won’t it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Free Advice for New Online Students (and Worth Every Penny!)

So you’re going online, huh?

A lot of us are these days.  And with probably less preparation than we’d like.  It’s going to be interesting, in the liberal arts sense of that term, the way three-headed frogs are … um … interesting.

I’ve been teaching online for over a decade now, for at least three different universities.  I’ve built my own classes – some of them fully online, some of them hybrids.  And since that experience might come in handy for students, I’m just going to throw out a couple of fairly simple ideas and hope for the best.

If any of this is at all is useful to you, take it with my blessing.

The first thing about online classes in general is that they require discipline in a way that most face-to-face classes don’t.  You’re on your own in some ways.  There’s no little bell in your head that says “Oh, at 9am on Monday I need to be sitting in that seat in that room.”  It is, in other words, very easy to drift off into the ether, and those are the students who fail.  Log in every day.  Every single day, without fail.  Things may change between logins, and they probably will.  Best case, there’s nothing to do and you log back out.  More likely, you’ll stay current on what needs to happen and not fall behind.  Because without that little reminder, without that self-discipline, it’s really, really easy to miss a day, and then a day turns into three days, which turns into a week, which turns into an F.  This may be less of an issue with full online schooling, which will make that every day demand more strenuously than a single course will, but it’s still important.

Similarly, these classes require time management.  It’s very tempting not to pay attention to deadlines when you’re at home, surrounded by any number of distractions.  Time management is the key to any academic success, but more so online.  Set yourself a schedule.  Be aware of your deadlines.  Make sure you give yourself the time to do what needs to be done.

Another key thing to any class is communication, and online classes are no different.  Email your instructor if you have problems.  Call.  Post something.  Let them know what is going on.  Instructors can work with you if you keep them posted, but if you disappear they will assume you don’t care and write you off.  Communication skills and time management are the two most important things that will get you to graduation at any level – far more than native intelligence – and you need to develop and use them.

Online classes all come on different platforms depending on what your institution has contracted for and what things cost.  I’m familiar with D2L and Canvas.  I’ve worked with Moodle and, once upon a disturbingly long time ago, Blackboard.  I have no experience with Google Classroom or any of the others.  These platforms all function relatively similarly, though the specifics vary.  The first thing you should do is explore the platform.  Click on things.  Click on everything.  You can’t break it and Moscow will remain un-nuked no matter what you do.  But get to know where things are and how they work because I cannot tell you how many students I have spoken with who discovered entirely new areas of assignments and graded tasks that they didn’t know about until halfway through the semester.  Click on everything.  Every single link.

All of these platforms have some kind of announcement space for teachers to get quick notes across to students.  Pay attention to those, especially now when a lot of teachers who never thought they’d be running an online class are suddenly thrust into it and need to get information out to you quickly.  For the same reason, always check your email.  Yes, email is old fashioned and ranks just one step above hard candy as something your grandparents try to foist off on you, but email is how colleges and high schools communicate these days.  Read the announcements, double check your email, and you won’t miss as much.

They all have some kind of content area where your teachers can post documents.  Go explore.  In a normal time that content would probably be timed to appear gradually as you progressed through the course, but it may just all get thrown up there now.  Download it all so you have it even if your internet connection goes down.

They all have some kind of discussion board area.  Figure out how to make posts and how to respond to posts, because that’s going to matter.  You’ll probably have assignments that require online discussion.  Write professionally – this is not SnapChat, Tumblr, or whatever new app is the hottest thing on social media.  You need to write in complete sentences.  The word “dude” should never appear, and most of your teachers are better at profanity than you are so don’t even go there.  You will not win.

They all have some kind of system for uploading assignments – Dropbox in D2L, for example, or Assignments in Canvas.  Again, figure out how it works.

Many classes will be having recordings of lectures or presentations – my own hybrid class this semester will likely continue having lectures since most of my students are used to logging in from home anyway, though I will record them for those who can’t log in.  Make sure you can log into whatever connection system the class uses.  My current hybrid class works with a BlueJeans connection, which I find simple and fairly intuitive, and my home campus uses Webex, which I’ve been given some quick training on this week.  Zoom is popular, and so are any number of other systems.  Figure out how they work and make sure you can log in before you have to log in.

All of these things have online help sites, toll-free numbers, and FAQs.  There are probably YouTube tutorials.  A lot of education is just learning how to make use of the resources available to you.  Make use of them.

Also, remember to mute your microphone if you’re not speaking and be careful about your computer’s camera.  TMI is a thing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re all struggling here.  This has been one giant clusterfornication of a month and everyone is ragged, stressed, and trying to figure out how this is going to work – and this includes your teachers.  We’re all winging it here, folks.  We need to cut each other some slack and be kind to each other.

Just to give you some idea of the advice that your teachers have been getting – or should have been getting anyway – here is a selection of what came my way.

We need to be gentle with each other.  We’re all stressed.  This can’t be repeated enough.  Be kind.

We will not recreate our regular classes online, nor will we be following “best practices.”  This is triage.  We’re trying to get enough up in the short time we have been given to give you the essentials of what our courses are trying to teach you.  As I said at the beginning, I’ve built online classes before.  They don’t happen in a week.  They don’t happen in two weeks.  These will be rushed.  These will have mistakes, technical glitches, and gaps.  Many of your teachers have not been trained to do this and are making do.  We’re doing the best we can and everyone needs to calm down and accept that.

We need to remember that this is a health care crisis and Shit Will Happen.  People will get sick.  People will have to care for those who are sick.  People will have to deal with all sorts of crises.  Be flexible.  Be open to accommodations.  Remember that bit about communication skills?  Everyone involved here – students, teachers, administrators, parents – needs to use those.  Let people know.  And don’t be a jerk about it either (see above).

We need to remember that not everyone has a good internet connection, not everyone has the equipment they need for an online class, and not everyone is in a good position to be the priority user of what equipment and connections they do have.  Many people will suddenly have new responsibilities and new stresses – lost jobs, more demands from jobs, family struggles, and so on.  Keep people informed (see above) and be flexible.

I have no idea if any of this will be helpful or not.

But there you have it.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Third

I’m not really sure how I will know if I have coronavirus, at least not at first.  I assume that when I get it – not if, since the majority of people will get this at some point in the next few weeks or months and as I am not particularly special I expect to be one of them – and it progresses a bit then it will be obvious even to one as clueless as myself.  But the initial symptoms? 

Gonna be a challenge.

There are basically four symptoms, for those of you keeping track.  A dry cough.  A fever.  Fatigue.  And difficulty breathing.  Which makes it indistinguishable from a lot of things, at least at first.  Especially for me.

I pretty much always have some kind of minor coughing thing going on.  Have since the Johnson Administration.  It’s practically my calling card.  I’m not sure what I would do with myself otherwise and my boss would never know I had gotten to work without hearing it.  A dozen black-and-turquoise vaporizers didn’t dent that as a child, and nothing else has since, either.  It’s always something of a surprise when it clears up for a bit, actually.

Being tired is my base state, though now that we’re in quarantine I expect that to improve a bit.  It’s the usual too much to do and not enough time to do it that defines American life these days.

And while I rarely ever have an actual fever, I frequently feel like I do.  Sometimes I’ll even go to the trouble of finding a thermometer, only to discover that my body temperature is actually below normal rather than above.  This may be why I rarely feel cold.  I’m already there, so it feels normal to me.  Who knows.

I am pretty good at breathing, though.  I’ve had over half a century of practice.  If that starts to get more difficult than usual then that would definitely be a pretty strong signal that something untoward is going on.

So far, so good, though.

The thing is, I’ve been a classroom teacher for more than thirty years now.  Every summer the students leave for parts unknown and every fall they come back bringing with them all of the new and exciting diseases that they have collected to share with everyone back home.  This is the flaw in the whole “well, did you bring enough for everyone?” argument that teachers have used since time immemorial, by the way, since the obvious answer here is “yes.” 

Beware of what you wish for.

Bottom line, after three decades in the classroom I now have the immune system of a Soviet tank.  Antiquated.  Clunky.  Prone to breakdowns.  But rugged, easily repaired in the field by nonspecialists, and very hard to kill.

So it will be interesting.

I’m trying to postpone this reckoning for as long as possible, since that will generally help the health care system not get overwhelmed all at once, and if everyone pitches in we’ll all be better off.  I realize that there are people out there who feel this is an infringement on their rights, this pitching in, and they’re going to go out barhopping or hold big parties or do whatever it is they do to assert their superiority over us sheeple, but those folks are stupid and Darwin always wins those contests. 

For my part I’m okay with the whole social distancing thing.  It suits me pretty well.  Introverts of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but social events you weren’t planning to attend anyway!  I’ve got my books and my tea and my family and I’m happy to stay put.  But even if I weren’t happy with it the simple fact is that it has to be done and so I'm doing it.

Maturity is knowing what has to be done and then getting it done whether you want to or not, because it has to be done.

I admit that it is hard to get motivated to grade assignments, with the world on fire and all, so I’m going to need to get over that.  It’s that whole maturity thing again. 

And it’s something to do on a grey March day when I’m not going anywhere else.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Second

It is startling how quickly things can change.

At the beginning of last week, I was teaching my classes and working comfortably in my advising job.  Students were coming in to see me, since we’re coming up on summer registration and they’re expected to see me once a month anyway.  Plus the usual crises that students have – solving those, or at least figuring out ways for students to cope with them, is literally part of my job description.  Oliver was home on Spring Break and looking forward to one more week of sleeping in before heading back for his own classes.  Kim had spent the weekend before hosting labs at Home Campus – her online chemistry class usually gets together for two weekends per semester to do all the labs at the same time – and was working from home and preparing for her usual week commuting to Madison for her admin job.  Lauren was in Europe on her exchange program.  She had hit the point in the exchange year where she was comfortable with the language and the setting and was enjoying herself immensely.

None of that holds now.

All of our campuses are closed.  I teach on or for four different campuses and every one of them is shut down right now and will be for at least a couple of weeks, whereupon things will be re-evaluated.  By that point all of my classes should be online for a couple more weeks.  Several of them are already online classes and they are relatively unaffected by the shutdowns, and I have built online classes before so I’m in pretty good shape for the other classes, though I have no idea how it will go in the broader sense.  We spent much of last week having advisor meetings trying to figure out how to provide services to our students in this interval as well, and it’s been an experience all around.

Kim’s office basically told her to work from home, so she’s set up for that now.

Oliver’s school extended its spring break as well and said the next month of classes would be online.  He made a quick drive down to the campus to collect stuff out of his dorm room – stuff he thought he’d be coming back to once classes resumed – and is ready to ride that out here with us.

And Lauren’s program pulled everyone out this week. 

We got word of this early Thursday morning – the parent Facebook page blew up and the whole day was just trying to find out what was happening when.  We spoke with her and her host family, who seem like just lovely people and we hope to meet them someday soon, after all this recedes, and on Friday she was in the air.  Kim picked her up in Chicago, along with friends of ours whose vacation got cut short, and she’s home now.

To be honest I still think Lauren would have been safer sheltering in place where she was, in a country with a national health care system and a government that understands this is a medical issue rather than a campaign issue, rather than get put on a plane with all sorts of strangers coming from all sorts of places and run through two major airports full of exposure risks, but it wasn’t our call.  I’m just heartsick that she had to get yanked away from her friends and life there. 

Of course now we’re all in self-quarantine.  The CDC and our local county health service both said that travelers from Europe need to stay home for two weeks to clear the incubation period.  If we wanted to avoid that ourselves we would have had to isolate Lauren in her room during that time but that seemed callous, so we’re all home.

Of all of us I’m probably the best suited for this sort of thing, really.  Very early on in our relationship Kim had to explain to me what cabin fever was and why it was bad.  “You mean I stay home with my books and my tea and I don’t have to leave and nobody bothers me and this is a problem … why?”  She married me anyway, folks.  It’s harder on the rest but it’s one of those things that has to be done so we do it.

We’re well stocked – I moved up my normal grocery run and we will not run out of food or supplies between now and when we get to go out and about again.  We’re actually allowed to leave the house as long as we don’t interact with anyone or go anywhere other people go, so my big excursion yesterday was to feed the chickens out at the barn.  The chickens don’t care about the wider world.  They get fed.  They lay eggs.  Lawsey do they lay eggs.  We have a lot of eggs.  We’ll be fine.

We had plans to see the Local Businessman High School musical this weekend, before everything changed.  They put on some impressive shows, and we were sorry to figure out that with everything else going on we wouldn’t be able to go and then they had to cancel the shows anyway, and then the governor shut down all the schools until next month just to reinforce the point.  But they figured out a way to livestream a performance, so with a few family members for an audience they got up on stage and sent it out to the rest of us last night.  It was well done, and I’m glad that the show went on.

You take what normalcy you can.