The last time saw all 24 hours on the clock would probably have been the stretch between June 9th and 10th in 2004. That night I waited in a line that eventually snaked halfway to the Washington Monument for the chance to slowly shuffle through the Capitol rotunda and pay my respects to Ronald Reagan. That night, I got in line around 8 PM and came down the west steps of the Capitol just as the sun was starting to come up. I got back to my apartment in Columbia around 7:30 that morning and promptly collapsed on the couch, staying there until after noon. It was a long day.
Today was another one of those long days. It started with frantic cleaning and the realization that the resident Labrador was getting sick faster than I could clean up after her. Then a high speed drive across northern Delaware to the new and improved emergency vet (followed by an attempt to clean whatever the tarp didn’t contain during our trip. Then two hours of waiting in the parking lot while the medicos made their preliminary evaluation and we reached collective agreement that she’d be better off with some professional oversight if only for the next half a day. I managed to get home at just about the time I’d usually be getting out of bed. Of course, trash needed emptied – because my God, the smell – and a mop run over things on more time before even thinking about laying down.
I tried to sleep. I really wanted to. I think between fits and starts I probably snuck in an hour or maybe 90 minutes of shut eye, but the habit of being awake in the early hours of the morning proved to be too strong to dispense with in just one night. So here I am, blurry eyed, fueled by caffeine, and trying hard now to stay awake in the hopes that tonight everything will get back on schedule.
How well that sought after night of rest comes to pass depends almost entirely on the always temperamental gastrointestinal tract of a certain, recently troublesome, chocolate Labrador.
Politics is one of those wonderful lands where how it looks is far, far more important than what it really is. As much as we like to think of our presidents as paragons of health and virtue, our history is filled with examples of dire medical conditions that were kept from the public because admitting the seriousness of their various conditions would have been an admission of weakness.
President Trump’s forging ahead to return to the White House despite ongoing treatment for COVID-19 is hardly an exception to the age-old rules of American politics. Wilson’s debilitating stroke was hidden from the public through the last year of his presidency. While campaigning for a 3rd term, Theodore Roosevelt was literally shot in the chest, but refused to surrender the podium. Jack Kennedy was regularly jammed full of painkillers to relieve a chronic backache. Franklin Roosevelt was dying of heart disease when he was elected to his 4th term.
There’s nothing new going on here, with the obvious exception of 24-hour professional and social media coverage that the American president receives day in and day out. Donald Trump might like to sell himself as the businessman president, but in the end he’s as much just another professional politician as the rest of them now… and in the last 30 days of an election, in a tight race, you’d be hard pressed to find a professional politician who wouldn’t rather die on the trail than stay in the hospital.
This isn’t the first time a president has pushed their health way past the breaking point in pursuit of their brass ring and I dare say it won’t be the last.
The President of the United States has contracted the Great Plague.
There’s very little I can say about that that hasn’t been pummeled to death by the media in the last sixteen hours. What I am interested in, though, is the approach to covering this news story. I very quickly lost track of how many “below the fold” stories, tweets, and talking heads were taking great pains to spin it not so much as a health or politics story, but as a “national security crisis.”
Yeah, about that.
Look, I know that makes for sexy, sexy headline, but let’s not pretend this is a Cuban missile crisis or Berlin blockade. It’s not a foreign decapitation strike that knocked out the first 47 people in the line of succession. It’s not a cyber-attack against our critical infrastructure. It’s an old man who’s come down with a nasty bug.
Yes, that means we dust off the succession planning and continuity of government documents. It might even mean we hustle someone off to set up housekeeping at Dick Cheney’s secure, undisclosed location. It could even mean ginning up the military to conduct a few small display of strength exercises as a reminder that we don’t turn off the lights just because the current occupant of the Oval Office has the sniffles, has heart surgery, or even gets shot.
The president having COVID-19 is a legitimate news story, but it hardly heralds the collapse of the institution of the presidency let alone causes the entire executive branch to seize up… but I don’t suppose that kind of story fills column inches or puts eyes on screens.
I’ve worn glasses since I was in 7th grade – meaning I’ve had them now far longer than I ever lived without them. They feel like a natural extension of my face at this point.
My prescription has changed over the years, but for the last decade or so has been fairly stable. That’s why it was painfully obvious early this year that I was struggling to keep the small print in focus. What’s worse, after long sessions with the book of the day, I’m regularly finding the words blurring together and my eyes just too tired to focus on anything that’s not halfway across the room.
It hasn’t been debilitating, but has been thoroughly annoying and disheartening from day-to-day as it sets limits on how many pages I can get through in a sitting. I don’t make a habit of living in fear, but if there’s anything in life that causes me an unreasonable amount of dread, it’s the idea of losing my vision. It’s precisely the kind of perverse plot twist the Olympians would devise for me.
I took a few hours of sick leave this morning and schlepped over for my annual eye exam and diagnostic for this new issue. This appointment has been on the schedule for months and given the sum of other circumstances in this plague summer it’s one I would have probably cancelled… but since current situation is standing between me and fully enjoying the books, I’m 100% willing to risk painful, suffocating death to get it resolved.
As it turns out, Doc assures me I’m not, in fact, going blind… but it’s yet another instance of bodily succumbing to the ravages of middle age. My fancy new transition lenses should be here in about two weeks.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find some tennis balls to put on the legs of my walker.
Google reminded me this morning that I have a dental cleaning appointment in two weeks.
Through the sweep of the last four months living under plague conditions, I haven’t done anything that made me particularly nervous. Going for groceries didn’t bother me. Stopping off at Asian Garden for a carryout order of General Tso’s and some egg rolls didn’t feel particularly threatening. Even a quick pop into one of my favorite book shops, depopulated of customers, was fine.
The idea of sitting calmly, unmasked, while someone hovers inches from my face while prodding, poking, scraping, and kicking up the dreaded aerosolized droplets, and “defenseless” against whatever the patient before me kicked up, leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Score one for my highly developed sense of self preservation, I guess.
I’m sure my dentist is following whatever protocols are required to make the experience reasonably safe… which does nothing to eliminate that nagging, and probably completely unreasonable thought that it feels like some kind of high-risk maneuver best avoided at the moment.
At the moment, I’m leaning soft no, but with two weeks to go you can count on me to spend an inordinate amount of time overthinking the situation and creating entire universes of arguments in favor and against. That gives me room to change my mind twenty or thirty times before it really matters.
I’m about as freedom loving a libertarian leaning Republican as you’re likely to find. Smart people are telling me that covering my face holes with as simple piece of cloth is helpful in reducing the spread of a disease that’s currently wrecking the economy and killing some people. They’re not telling me that a mask is the cure. They’re not saying it will magically stop the spread of all airborne particles. They’re saying that in their best scientific estimate, a mask will reduce transmission if I wear one when I’m away from home and in proximity to other people.
Yep, it’s hot and uncomfortable. My glasses fog up and the four-month lack of barbering means my beard sticks out at the edges in a way resembling nothing so much as a 70s porn star wearing a bikini. I don’t like wearing a mask, but doing it because smart people say I should isn’t in any way infringing on my constitutional liberties. There’s no part of the Constitution that guarantees your right to make others look at your stupid face.
If you’re one of the people tempted to respond to this post arguing that “it’s just the flu” or “it’s the media” or “it’s a vast left-wing conspiracy,” just go ahead and shut the fuck up. This isn’t about politics. It’s a very simple matter of smart versus stupid… although it has gone a long way towards showing which mouth breathing yokels we should collectively avoid even when masks are no longer needed.
1. “Research.” The internet is crawling with people who think they have “done research” or “studied” all manner of troubles that have lain undiagnosed by any of the other eight billion or so people on the planet. I mean if there really was a legitimate thread by which vaccinations lead to all developmental problems in human, I have to suppose it would have been uncovered at some point by serious medicos who would be happy to make a name for themselves. We’ve been inoculating people against disease since the early 18th century… and yes there have always been adverse reactions, but since tens of thousands of people aren’t falling down dead from smallpox anymore I’m willing to take my chances because people smarter than me who are credentialed in medicine, biology, and chemistry tell me it’s a good idea. The same is true when the internet lights up with warnings that dinner plates made before 2005 contains toxic levels of lead that sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids – all turning on the “research” conducted by someone using their kitchen counter as a laboratory and going out of their way to avoid presenting actual data, methods, or independent verification. But hey, feel free to go ahead and base your “research” on the rantings of some uncredentialed, ill-informed, and mentally questionable rando on the internet. I’m sure their information is better than the sum total of the knowledge acquired by western medicine over the last thousand years.
2. Questions. I’ve heard it sad that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. If you really believe that I’ll just have to assume you’ve never actually met people. Ever. Take, for instance, one of the most popular questions I’ve seen swirling around the office this last week. It basically asks “I’m worried that COVID-19 can be transmitted by toilets. We can’t expect people to hold it all day so what’s being done to protect people from the potty?” I can only presume this was an actual question and not, in some way, sent as an effort to find the funny since it was asked at least twice almost verbatim in two different forums. The answer, in case you’re curious, is that restrooms will be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis (as they have been before and during the initial phases of the Great Plague). If you’re wearing your mask, washing your hands, and not touching every surface in the bathroom and then jamming your hands in your mouth, eyes, or nose, your chances of a toilet-related disaster are probably pretty low… although that feels like a pretty big ask for a lot of people.
3. The Great Plague. After three months we’re finally hitting a moment when I’m personally being inconvenienced by the Great Plague. You see, my favorite cut-rate discount used book warehouse is open again, the truly massive barn sale in southern Pennsylvania where I always seem to find some treasure or another is scheduled for this weekend, and I find myself about to be desperately in need of more shelving in the non-fiction section here at Fortress Jeff. Being the proud possessor of “underlying health conditions” and now seeing the ongoing increase in cases and hospitalizations being reported around the country heading out on the search for old and unusual or more books and places to put them is something of a roll of the dice. My local area currently has a respectably low positivity rate despite the increased number of tests being administered. Part of me wants to use the moment to get a few long-delayed items off the to do list before we cycle back towards another spike… while of course the other part wants to just stay comfortably home, avoid any unnecessary exposure, and watch the world burn itself down.
What I learned this week in a lot of ways is just a confirmation of what I’ve known my entire adult life – and that’s that I have absolutely no interest in ever living in a city. Yes, I’m aware my disinterest in city living means I’m “missing out” on untold cultural opportunities, fine dining, education, and whatever else it is that attracts people to live in America’s dense urban centers. I’ve made my peace with being able to access those opportunities as needed from a distance if I ever really need to avail myself of them.
I’m not built for living in a place that prides itself on ginning up ever increasing population density or warehousing people stacked 20 floors deep with a thousand next door neighbors. I’m not a great outdoorsman, but I can’t fathom living somewhere my only outdoor space is ten feet of concrete sidewalk or the part six blocks away that can be closed at a moment’s notice by executive fiat. When I want access to green space, I like the option of walking across my own yard and being there – already with the forest at my doorstep.
As much as I like “home,” finding myself confined to a few hundred square feet indefinitely is the stuff of nightmares. I despised riding DC’s Metro a lifetime ago when I commuted into the District for work. The idea that it, filled with plague victims with no other options, would be my only reasonable means of transportation, sounds definitively awful. If nothing else, the Great Plague has reinforced my already deep belief in the value of elbow room between me and the next closest neighbor.
Cecil County is just far enough away that it won’t likely be a bedroom community for Baltimore or Philadelphia any time soon… but the growth of housing developments and apartment complexes along the county’s main routes undeniably means that people are finding their own reason to live here. I’ve been here long enough to notice the daily increase in traffic to and from the major outlying areas of employment. It’s already feeling just a little bit too crowded for my tastes.
I’m happy enough where I am for the time being. State land and large lots will do their part to prevent too much crowding. Once I don’t need to make residency decisions based on proximity to an employer, though, the gloves are coming off. If I’ve learned nothing else from watching the news unfold these last few weeks, it’s that I well and truly have no business living or working inside of one of America’s great Petri dishes. I’m sure it’s fine for some people, but it’ll be a hard pass for me.
I’ve written before about the decline of personal privacy. We slap RFID tags on our vehicles to make paying tolls marginally less painful. We carry around a mobile tracking device in our pockets. Many of us live with home security cameras that can see all but the most private moments.
The tech industry’s move towards developing apps that use our phone’s onboard GPS to track proximity to potentially infected people may sound like an altruistic use of technology to improve public health. Outside of saying they’re working on this “neat new thing,” not much is being said about the implications that come along with using such a personal tracker. Without knowing what, if any, legal safeguards will be in place, details of what beyond proximity is being collected, how long it will be stored, who will have access to it, how it will be used, and what control I will have over what’s collected, I have to say it’ll be pass from me.
I’ve signed over some degree of privacy to big tech already because I value the services they provide. At its heart, though, my cell phone is nothing more than a tool. I have no intention of taking life guidance from it – or from Apple or Google or any of the other firms racing into this space.
I won’t be wearing a tinfoil hat anytime soon, but I feel like sooner rather than later I’ll find my phone living in a Faraday bag except for moments when I need to use the damned thing.
Maryland’s governor started out a few weeks ago cautioning residents about the virus. Over the last several weeks, those advisories took on ever increasing urgency as it because clear that politely asking people to stay at home wasn’t working – as they continued to congregate at beaches, parks, and bars. Then he ordered those places shuttered… and people found other ways to gather. This morning he announced a wide reaching “stay at home” order, providing criminal penalties for for doing those things we were previously advised to avoid.
Aside from my own instinctive chafing at government so dramatically curtailing the scope of our collective liberty (even in the name of a good cause), I have serious doubts about the average citizen’s ability or willingness to comply with what are currently open ended orders to stay put. Americans have a long and storied history of going where the government of the day tells them not to go. It’s in no small part the story of our nation’s westward expansion… although I don’t think the desire to move the family west to homestead Nebraska is going to be the issue in the here and now.
I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life being utterly happy staying home. That’s not true for most people. It’s even less true when you can’t tell them how long they’ll be expected to stay put. Many of us are starting week 2 or 3 of this new normal and despite the gallows humor that suffuses social media, there’s a decided undercurrent of fear and worry out there too. How long my fellow citizens are willing to sit in their homes with those two companions remains to be seen.
I’ve got my doubts that “indefinitely” is going to be an answer some, or even many, will accept as the weeks continue to stretch on, even if that means going about against the best medical advice and in violation of our newly instituted executive orders.