Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Ninth - More Funny

Because we can all use something funny about now -


Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Eighth - Notes from Lockdown

1. We’re among the elite few for whom lockdown actually means more freedom, having just completed our quarantine period.  We can actually leave the house to do essential things now.  Errands are surprisingly nice.

2. Lauren and I went grocery shopping this morning, for example – the first grocery run I’ve done in over two weeks.  We were well supplied for our quarantine, and our friend Eric made a couple of deliveries to us for things we’d run out of during that time, so it’s not like we were suffering.  But it was nice to go to the supermarket ourselves.

3. The grocery was not the Mad Max experience that I have been led to believe it would be by social media, which is a valuable lesson on how seriously one should take social media.  Most things were in stock.  A few things were low or rationed (I get why they ration things like toilet paper, since people are idiots and hoarding the stuff, and peanut butter or canned tuna, since those are shelf-stable protein, but why ration frozen bagels?  Seriously – this is the most goyische place I have ever lived and they’re rationing bagels?) but for the most part it was like shopping before quarantine only everyone stood further apart and the cashiers have giant plastic screens protecting them now.  You know, folks, if everyone just calms down a bit and stays home unless they have to, we’ll be okay.

4. Lauren was a bit taken aback at being reimmersed into a giant American supermarket after spending seven months in Europe where the salty snack aisle in most grocery stores is not literally a hundred yards long, as it is in the supermarket here in Our Little Town.  She took photos to send back to her host family.  It will only confirm their stereotypes.

5. We also stopped for gas, since we hadn’t done that in a fortnight and we’ve been running back and forth to the barn to feed the chickens.  Gas prices have, um, cratered?  Seriously?  I don’t remember the last time the tank was below half and it cost me less than $10 to fill it.

6. I have been trying to avoid politics as best I can because it just makes me want to run outside and do things that will not end well, but I have to admit when the President of the United States openly brags about letting American citizens die unless he gets his ass kissed, any responsible American needs to spread the word about the sheer soulless evil of that shriveled little man and his minions, cronies, lackeys, and enablers.  It is long past time for Trump to be torn down and replaced by a human being.  This is no longer really even politics at all.  It’s basic humanity.  If you still support him after his actions over the past month you have serious moral problems and need to reevaluate your life choices.

7. Seriously folks – stay the hell home unless you really need to go out for things like food, medical care, or an essential job.  Don’t listen to any elected or self-appointed nutjob who tells you otherwise.  Those dimwits don’t have your interests at heart and most of them will be dead soon if they follow their own advice.  Some of them already are.

8. One of the odder consequences of having to teach from home has been the fact that I had to do a thorough cleanse of my computer desktop.  I record my compressed video class in Kaltura, which does a nice job of showing both the speaker and the computer screen in the final recording.  But this means my desktop is always going to be showing in these videos.  So I had to clean up the several thousand icons that were on there (something I do periodically anyway, and then they build up again and the cycle repeats) and choose a much less personal photo to be the wallpaper.  I ended up choosing a street scene in Stockholm that I took a couple of years back, because it is a lovely photo and reminds me of better times.  I’ve also been doing a better job of cleaning up new icons as they appear rather than waiting until they hit critical mass.  My computer desktop is eerily empty now, but at least I can pretend I’m walking down a quiet street in a country that hasn’t gone insane over the last decade.

9. Speaking of eerily empty, one of the other tasks today now that I’m no longer quarantined was to go down to Home Campus and get all the files I need to keep doing my job from home.  It’s a strange thing to be on a college campus in the middle of the semester and see only two other cars there.  I’ve read too many post-apocalyptic novels to be comfortable with that.

10. I’ve actually managed to watch some television now that I’m mostly home these days.  I haven’t done much of that for years – not out of any great moral objections (there’s a lot of great stuff on these day) but mostly because I find that it all makes me antsy and I have to leave, no matter how good it is.  But Kim and I managed to watch an entire season of The Great British Baking Show (as it is called in this country to avoid the Pillsbury folks from getting all lawyery at them) last week.  It was one of the older ones, with Sue and Mel still on it, and it was a lovely way to spend time.  There aren’t any villains, really, and you find yourself cheering for them all. 

11. Of course, at the current rate of change in a few years that show – and any show that treats food as superfluously abundant and expendable – may well be regarded as a form of pornography.

12. It’s starting to feel like spring, though.  The rabbits are outside in their hutches instead of cooped up in the basement, the chickens are at the barn, and today there have been thunderstorms because that’s just how things are in Wisconsin. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Seventh - Bring the Funny

Because at this point we could all use something funny.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the Sixth - The Politics of Death

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 - Notes from Quarantine

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 - Knowing

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 - How Quickly It Changes

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.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year, Part the First - Lessons from 1918

My grandparents survived the Spanish Flu epidemic in Philadelphia in 1918.

They didn’t talk about it much. 

Some of that was probably because they were very young when it happened – my grandmother was just shy of five when the first case was diagnosed in that city in September of 1918, and my grandfather was about a year older – and some of it was just that’s what that generation was like.  They had their stories that they liked to tell, but the hard ones didn’t come up very often.  I don’t remember my grandmother ever discussing it with me.  My grandfather would, though, every once in a while.

He had a child’s eye view of it, of course, but what he remembered about it most of all were the doors.  On every block (he would have said “square,” which is a very Philadelphia sort of word for that) there was at least one door draped in black crepe paper to show that someone in the house had died. 

White crepe paper for a child.

That was the thing he remembered most, that it was on every block.  You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the crepe paper, without some public memorial to the recently dead.

The Spanish Flu devastated Philadelphia.  It was one of the hardest hit cities in North America, in large part because the city refused to take the preventative action they needed to take until it was too late to be helpful.

It was late in the Great War, for example, and the city wanted to hold a parade for returning veterans.  Despite all the blinking warning lights, despite all the doctors literally demanding that the parade get canceled, they did.  Hundreds of thousands of people crowded the streets, rubbing elbows, sharing germs.  Three days later every one of the hospital beds in Philadelphia – a city rich in hospitals, then as now – was full.  And then the body count began to rise.

More than 12,000 people died in Philadelphia from the Spanish Flu by the time the epidemic ended.  Philadelphia authorities eventually took the actions they needed to take – closing schools, theaters, bars, churches, and other social gathering spaces, prohibiting large groups, and so on.  The sorts of closures that are happening now in response to the coronavirus.  But they did it too late. 

And even then, there were people complaining that it was just a scare tactic.  Just as there are now.

Ultimately the Spanish Flu would kill more people around the world than World War I did.  It would kill more Americans than WWI did.  Not many people remember that these days.  Hell, not many people in the US remember World War I at all, other than the name and maybe some vague idea that there were trenches somewhere.  We’re not a historically minded people.

And it will cost us.  It already is costing us.

If you want to stop an epidemic, you need to do things before most people think you need to do things, because if you wait until the need is obvious it will be too late.  You need to look like you’re overreacting, because the crisis hasn’t fully hit and if you do it right the crisis won’t fully hit and people will make fun of you for overreacting even though that was exactly what you needed to do in order to avoid the crisis in the first place.

Computer scientists call this the “the Y2K effect.”

Listen to the trained experts out there – the medical people who aren’t running for re-election and actually know what they’re talking about.  Listen to the reports that are coming out of hard-hit areas like Italy.  And do what they tell you to do.  Stay home.  Avoid large gatherings.  All those things.  Even just slowing down the rate of infections will make a huge difference in people surviving because that’s how you keep the health care system from getting overwhelmed.

As a historian I am all too aware that there are a lot of people in this world who are belligerently ignorant of the past and utterly, aggressively unwilling to learn from it.  I’ve been pushing that boulder up the hill for more than a quarter of a century.  We’re governed by those people now.

But you don’t have to be that stupid.

And you shouldn’t be.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Further News and Updates

Because the last one left out a lot and I just don’t have the time or energy right now for anything longer.


1. I’m slowly working my way through a pile of genealogical documents that I found online through my recently rediscovered cousin and I keep coming up on people whom I have heard of in family stories and who I think of as having lived and died a long time ago and then I see that they died in 1992 or thereabouts and I think, “Wow, that was recent!”  And then I do some math and think, “Well, no, that was not recent at all” and this is my life now.

2. The other thing that has become really obvious is that my ancestors came from some very, very small towns.  My grandmother’s side of the family has been marrying each other since at least the 1700s and in every generation you see the same half dozen surnames tossed up in the air and rearranged into new households.  Add to that the Italian tendency to stick with the same three or four given names unless forced to improvise by additional children and you end up with a lot of repetition that isn’t really as repetitive as it looks. 

3. The chickens tried to burn down the house last week.  They haven’t fully feathered out yet so we have a heat lamp (well, a shop lamp with an increasingly-hard-to-find incandescent bulb in it) on top of the wire mesh that covers their pen to keep them warm and also in case the cats decide to get curious or the birds decide to go exploring.  They knocked it off somehow.  Fortunately Kim came home before anything untoward happened, although we do have a scorch mark in our carpet the size of your fist.  We’ve clipped the lamp to the wire now.  The carpet is not a huge loss, to be honest – it’s the last of the stuff that was here when we moved in an embarrassingly long time ago – and perhaps this will motivate us to tear it out and either replace it or just stick with the hardwood that we know is underneath.  But chicken arsonists are not acceptable.  I am seriously thinking of putting a bottle of barbecue sauce in their pen as a warning.

4. Am I the only one who remembers when the internet was fun?

5. You can insert here the standard “what the hell were they thinking” rant about Daylight Savings Time that I go on every year.  Seriously, why do we do this to ourselves?  It’s hard enough to get out of bed as it is and then we go and steal an hour of sleep from, well, us?  Why?  And if we’re going to do this to ourselves anyway, why can’t we move the clocks ahead at 1pm on a Thursday and get us all out of meetings or other such activities instead?  When I’m in charge things will be different.  Not necessarily better.  But certainly different.

6. I have three flights either planned or actually booked in the next four months, and I’m kind of wondering how many of them are actually going to happen.  One we planned a while ago, to visit a friend out on the west coast.  I’m pretty optimistic about that one since it’s coming up fairly soon.  Things would have to get seriously bad in a hurry to affect that flight, and if that happens we all have bigger problems than missed flights.  It’s possible, of course, but I’m optimistic it will be okay.  We’re also trying to put together to visit Lauren, which requires a fair amount of bureaucracy just to get to the point where we can buy the tickets in the best of times and may well be rendered moot by events.  I grow less optimistic about that by the day, though I still hold out hope.  And immediately after that – assuming we're not all under quarantine by then – I have to zip off to grade AP exams, because that’s the kind of wild man I am.  And they pay me to do that, which is important, being paid.  So we’ll see.

7. Yes, Lauren is staying where she is for now.  The exchange program folks have left that decision up to the parents and to be blunt I suspect she’s a whole lot safer in a country whose main form of health care coverage isn’t Go Fund Me, where sick days for food service workers aren’t unheard of, and whose leader isn’t a sociopathic narcissist whose only concern about this pandemic is whether it makes him look bad enough to threaten his re-election campaign.  Plus on a more positive note, an exchange program is a life-changing experience and we are not going to cut that short a moment before we absolutely have to do so. 

8. Last year I sold my health insurance information to, well, my health insurance company for a small reward.  I’m not sure why they wanted it since they already have it, but there you go.  When I get pre-emptively denied basic air privileges because I’m just that poor of a risk, you can say I had it coming, I suppose.  But now I have this prepaid credit card that comes with so many restrictions on it that trying to figure out what to spend it on has been something of a chore.  I’m sure I’ll think of something.  It is a privilege to have this problem, really, and I'm kind of enjoying it.

9. Moral purity is a luxury enjoyed by people who have no responsibilities.  This thought keeps running through my head these days.  I’m sure there’s a good reason why this is so.

Friday, March 6, 2020

News and Updates

1. I have to admit that while I don’t want the coronavirus epidemic to get worse – the human cost of that would be prohibitive – the thought of being quarantined for a week or two in my house does hold a certain appeal to me right now.  I could use a bit of down time.

2. I’ve been keeping an eye on the primaries as they slowly work their way toward a place where I can vote, and I have to say I’m slightly taken aback by the fact that here in 2020 we’ve somehow ended up with a presidential contest between three white men in their 70s.  Speaking as a single-issue voter (“Get that corrupt Fascist out of the White House and have his minions, cronies, lackeys, and enablers removed from civilized society”) I will vote for whomever opposes der Sturmtrumper in the general election, but still.  You’d think we would recognize the talents of, well, the majority of the population by now.

3. Speaking of the primaries, watching the vitriolic trolling by the Bernie Bros on social media this week in the wake of his serious losses has been a disheartening experience.  Have those shortsighted fools learned nothing from 2016?  Folks, if your attitude is “My candidate or fuck you” then you are part of the problem.

4. Please note that I am distinguishing between Bernie supporters – people who like his ideas and want him to be president – and Bernie Bros, who would rather see the country burn to ashes than accept that someone else might be the Democratic nominee.  The former group counts many of my friends among them, and while he wasn’t my first choice I can’t say I’d be unhappy if Bernie won in November myself.  The latter group needs to grow up.

5. Having the equivalent of a job and a half is a great way to discover just how much free time you don’t have.  Sigh.  Spring Break is a’comin’ in, though, assuming we’re not all quarantined by then (vide supra).

6. Ollie is now home for his spring break, which is nice – I’m always happy when my kids are home.  I picked him up on Wednesday and we stopped on the way back at a burger place I’d never been to before, because he said they had “superior fries.”  And they did.  They also had not only “fry sauce,” which I’d never seen outside of Utah, but also (be still my beating heart) jalapeno fry sauce.  I can see myself visiting this establishment again sometime in the very near future, really.

7. While we were winding our way up to this place (why do the GPS systems insist on taking you on the most circuitous route possible if it is thirty feet shorter than the more straightforward route?  I swear at one point I was driving through someone’s living room) we saw a Tulsi Gabbard sign on somebody’s lawn.  Did you know she was still running?  I admit it was news to me.

8. We’re experimenting with cutting the cable cord this month.  Kim mostly watches things on Netflix or Roku and I don’t really watch anything at all other than soccer or hockey so it’s long past time we stopped paying that particular bill.  Kim is an optimizer, however, and we are experimenting with replacing cable with an array of alien technology that might as well be an atomic death cannon for all I can make of it, though I did get it to show me a soccer game last weekend.  That smoking crater where Troy, NY used to be is surely a coincidence. 

9. One of the joys of genealogical research is finding new people you are related to.  I recently made contact with a distant cousin on my grandmother’s side, and it has been fun trading stories and photographs of people we have in common but didn’t know much about.  We have filled in a number of each other’s gaps in family lore and information.

10. It’s been fairly spring-like here in Baja Canada this week, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit (5-15 Celsius), except for about an hour and a half on Wednesday morning when we had a white-out blizzard.  Hard to know what to think, really.