Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Reading

Trump’s Quackery — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on the need for rigorous science in the midst of the worst pandemic in history.

On March 18th, researchers in France circulated a study about the promising experimental use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, in combination with azithromycin, an antibiotic, as a treatment for the disease caused by the coronavirus. The study was neither randomized nor peer-reviewed, and other scientists soon criticized its methodology. But Tucker Carlson, on Fox News, highlighted the work. The next day, President Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine’s “very, very encouraging early results.” He added, mentioning another unproven therapy, “I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer.”

At a White House press briefing on March 20th, a reporter asked Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whether hydroxychloroquine could be effective in treating covid-19. “The answer is no,” Fauci said, before yielding the microphone to Trump, who countered, “May work, may not. I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy.” A few days later, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said, “Using untested drugs without the right evidence could raise false hope and even do more harm than good.”

Trump’s quackery was at once eccentric and terrifying—a reminder, if one was needed, of his scorn for rigorous science, even amid the worst pandemic to strike the country in a century. Yet his conduct typified his leadership as the crisis has intensified: his dependency on Fox News for ideas and message amplification, his unshakable belief in his own genius, and his understandable concern that his reëlection may be in danger if he does not soon discover a way to vanquish COVID-19 and reverse its devastation of the economy.

New York City now faces a “troubling and astronomical” increase in cases, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the emergency is overwhelming hospitals, straining drug and equipment supplies, and threatening to cause a shortage of ventilators. The grim course of events in the city is a “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the country, Cuomo said, and leaders elsewhere must take decisive action lest they, too, become inundated. Trump, though, spent much of last week promoting a contrarian gambit that has been percolating in the right-wing media. He said that, to revitalize the economy, he would like to lift travel restrictions and reopen workplaces across the country within weeks, perhaps by Easter, which is on April 12th, because, as he put it repeatedly, “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem.”

Public-health experts immediately warned against such a reversal of social-distancing rules. “The virus will surge, many will fall ill, and there will be more deaths,” William Schaffner, a specialist in preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told the Times. When a reporter asked the President whether any of the “doctors on your team” had advised him that a hasty reopening was “the right path to pursue,” he replied, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say, ‘Let’s keep it shut down . . . let’s keep it shut for a couple of years.’ ” Public-health specialists have said no such thing; they have spoken of a conditions-based approach (“You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline,” Fauci has said), while advising that, to save the most lives, local leaders must wait to lift restrictions in their areas until the data show that the virus has stopped spreading. Trump said that any loosening of rules he might seek around the country—he mentioned Nebraska and Idaho as possible sites—would be “based on hard facts and data,” but he also said that he chose Easter as a target date because he “just thought it was a beautiful time.”

It is true, as Trump also argued, that enormous job losses and an all but certain recession caused by the pandemic will harm many vulnerable Americans, and claim lives, as ill people without health insurance, for example, forgo care or struggle to get it at stressed clinics and hospitals. Yet, at least in the short term, over-all mortality rates fall during recessions; the reasons for this aren’t fully clear, but social scientists think they may include the public-health benefits of a decrease in pollution, as a result of the slowing economy. In any event, the case the President made for hurrying an economic revival against the advice of scientists was morally odious; it suggested that large numbers of otherwise avoidable deaths might have to be accepted as the price of job creation.

Public-health officials spoke frankly to the press about the catastrophic prospects of the President’s Easter folly. (“President Trump will have blood on his hands,” Keith Martin, the director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, told the Times.) Trump responded on Twitter by lashing out at the “LameStream Media” for reporting such forecasts, calling the press “the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.” Last Wednesday, after Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict the President, on a charge of abuse of power, during the Senate impeachment trial, announced that he had tested negative for COVID-19, Trump tweeted mockingly, “I’m so happy I can barely speak.” At the White House briefings, surrounded by the sorts of civil servants and experts he habitually disdains, Trump has adapted awkwardly to the role of solemn unifier. When he leaves the podium to tweet nonsense at his perceived enemies, he at least provides his opponents among the country’s homebound, screen-addled, and anxious citizenry with a galvanizing dose of his immutable obnoxiousness—a splash of the old new normal.

The journal Science asked Fauci why he doesn’t step in when the President makes false statements in the briefings. “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” he said. America’s public-health system is fragmented and market-driven, conditions that only compound the challenge of quashing COVID-19. In the Trump era, however, decentralization has a benefit: the President is not solely in charge, and in the months ahead governors and mayors will continue to shape the odds of life or death for great numbers of Americans. Last week, Trump reviewed the possibilities for quarantine in New York City, his ravaged home town. He rambled about the stock exchange (“It’s incredible what they can do”), before going on to pledge, “If we open up, and when we open up . . . we’re giving the governors a lot of leeway” to decide how this should be done. We can only hope so.

Home Theatre — Ben Brantley in The New York Times has some suggestions for plays to read with your family gathered around.

Our stage was always a sofa — the long one that faced the fireplace. It could easily seat four or five, but my mother and I would huddle at one end, sunk into extra cushions, with our books on our laps.

And my 12-year-old self might say to her, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” And she would answer, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”

That’s from “Hamlet,” of course, the scene where the title character confronts his mother in her chamber about her unholy marriage to his uncle. We were, I should hasten to add, too caught up in a cracking, plot-propelling confrontation — and the gorgeous language in which it was expressed — to be consciously thinking about how it might mirror any tensions between a real-life mother and son in the 1960s.

No, the play always was truly the thing, a fascinating story that you understood better on every occasion you read it aloud. Though we went through “Hamlet” at least several times together — as we did with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” — it always surprised us.

We’d read an act or two at a time, and there’d always be a certain point when the words would make sense in a new way. I’d feel so privileged to be saying them myself, with my voice, and hearing my mother answer me in the same language. And I’d start to feel a hum of undiluted contentment, pitched at the level of a cat’s purr, that was so very rare during my adolescence.

Those moments have been much on my mind in this time of shuttered theaters and social isolation, when a drama critic is deprived of his livelihood and memories have a way of surfacing amid the silence. Though I have yet to coax my partner into picking up a script with me, reading plays aloud is a tradition I’d love to revive — and one I would highly recommend to those looking for ways to find magic in empty hours.

I can’t recall exactly when my mother and I started reading plays aloud together, or which of us first suggested we do so. Her father, an English professor, specialized in Shakespeare, so the canon had always been part of our lives. Though my mom, like my dad, became a newspaper journalist, she had loved acting in college and community theater productions when she was a young woman. And, by the age of 8, I was taking acting classes and appearing in local shows in Winston-Salem, N.C., where we lived.

We’d select works not only by Shakespeare, but also by Kaufman and Hart, Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Philip Barry and occasionally something grittier — Eugene O’Neill, say, or Clifford Odets. We weren’t reading scripts to flex our muscles as thespians or to show off for each other. (OK, maybe I was, a little.) This was just our version of stress-free, parent-child bonding, an activity that took us out of ourselves for an hour or so, while confirming our mutual love of theater and words.

You don’t have to be a Meryl Streep or a Mark Rylance to enjoy this pastime, any more than you have to be Tom Brady to play touch football. All that’s really required is the ability to read and to speak — and, well, a willingness both to suspend critical judgment and to let whatever you’re reading take over your imagination enough that self-consciousness retreats.

Remember that plays — even those lofty classics that show up on college reading lists — are meant to be spoken and heard. And saying their lines aloud, no matter how clumsily, helps you hear the music and cadences in them. This is true not only of Shakespeare, but also of linguistically rich latter-day writers like August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks and David Mamet.

If play reading at home captures your fancy, here is a list of suggestions. Because times are grim, I’m mostly sticking to works that are easy to follow and fun to read — and driven more by dialogue than visual effects or physical interaction.

This is my choice for a first dive into Shakespeare out loud. It’s sinewy and relatively short, and moves as fast a Scottish warrior’s steed on a battlefield. It is also irresistibly lurid, with lots of opportunities to go over the top in interpretation. (Those witches!) It also seems fair to say that all of us these days — who have become weary experts in hand-washing — are prepared to take on Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, in which she endlessly scrubs at hands she imagines are permanently bloodstained.

Thornton Wilder’s portrait of small-town American life in a cosmic context is written in plain and forthright prose that grows in power in the recitation of it. Perfect for those who would just as soon avoid flashy histrionics, and a good choice for families. (An alternative could be O’Neill’s uncharacteristically sunny domestic comedy, “Ah, Wilderness.”)

This one’s definitely not for children. But Albee’s immortal, four-character look at marriage as a blood sport (which was to have been staged on Broadway this season, with Laurie Metcalf) has a fierce momentum that can be ridden like a roller coaster. This is the play that the woman I lived with my senior year of college and I would trot out for postprandial entertainment when we had guests for dinner. And no, I do not want to think about what this says about my character at that age.

Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1987, set in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, turns the classic domestic drama into an exploration of the legacy of slavery. It’s the most immediately accessible — and family-friendly — of his plays, and it has a poetry all its own that approaches Shakespearean heights.

Another favorite from my college days, Coward’s peerlessly urbane tale of a couple who can’t live together and can’t be apart provides an occasion to put on plummy English accents and arched eyebrows. Just the sort of thing to read in a dressing gown, with a dry martini or two at hand. (An alternative: Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” a series of comic vignettes set in the hotel of the title, which had been scheduled to open on Broadway this season with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.)

Lillian Hellman’s great potboiler about greed and chicanery in small-town Alabama in 1900 allows plenty of opportunity for camping it up wickedly, and with a Southern drawl to boot.

For those who are feeling that life is indeed an endless waiting game these days and are brave enough to take on the ultimate literary evocation of that feeling. Not exactly escapist fare, but a lot funnier than you may remember. (An alternative: Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander “Topdog/Underdog.”)

For the British mystery lover, these theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie novels are equal parts cozy and creepy. And the reassuringly stock characters require no special actorly finesse to bring to life. (Ayn Rand’s “The Night of January 16th,” a longtime favorite of high schools, could be an alternative. I played the gangster my junior year.)

Most of these plays are available for download online. One warning: This kind of project can affect the way you talk. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying “methinks” (if you’re doing Shakespeare) or calling people “dahling” (if you’re reading Coward). But, really, what’s wrong with bringing a little flash to everyday conversation at a time of stay-at-home monotony?

Actually, I have another list to offer: my own plays are on New Play Exchange and they offer a variety from one-minute comedies to full-length dramedies.  If you want copies for your in-home entertainment, let me know via e-mail: mustangbobby (at)  I mean it.

Doonesbury — Ladies first.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Happy Friday

This has been a tough week for the whole world, but in our way, we are doing our best to make it through with determination and that indomitable human spirit.  We are finding ways to cope with this pandemic with inventive means and even with humor, which is, in its own way, an essential service.

As I noted earlier this week, a lot of us theatre people are finding ways to create, to share, to inspire even if the venues and stages are shuttered.  We are supporting our fellow crafters with funds where needed, a helping hand where possible, and just plain uplifting spirit that carries us through.

I myself came across a play that I started in 2009 called “Tucumcari Tonite!”  I had written about nine pages, then stopped, and never went back.  I don’t remember why I stopped, but two days ago I picked up where I left off, finished it (if plays are ever finished) and posted it on NPX.  It’s a light little buddy comedy one-act that takes place on the side of a highway in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  It’s nothing profound, but in times like these, we need a little lightness to make us laugh, even if it’s only for thirty-two pages.

Stay safe.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Checking In

I’m glad the Senate passed the $2 trillion coronavirus emergency funding, and I look forward to getting my check from the government.  I’m glad that hospitals and emergency workers will get funding to buy ventilators and supplies, and I’m even glad that some corporations will get bail-outs because I’m a realist and I knew that there had to be some gimmes to make it happen.  The hard truth is that even at that stunning price tag, it’s going to last about three months before they’re going to have to do more.  But, as Scarlett O’Hara once noted, tomorrow is another day.

As for me, I’ve been sheltering at home.  I’m stocked up well on groceries, and I haven’t driven since Tuesday, saving on gas.  I’ve caught up on “Schitt’s Creek” (highly recommended), and the crossword puzzles are diverting.  I was cleaning up my computer files and came across a play I started writing in 2009. or at least that was the last time I worked on it.  It was nine pages, and I don’t remember why I stopped.  So yesterday morning I picked up where I left off, and by last night I had written another fifteen pages, and I hope to get to the point where I can write END OF PLAY by this weekend.

The new play takes place on a stretch of road in eastern New Mexico, so here’s a bit of relaxation therapy to help you take a moment and enjoy the beauty of the open sky and spaces.

How are you doing?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

“We Have A Deal”

It took five days of marathon wrangling, but the coronavirus stimulus bill is ready for a vote.

Senate leaders and the Trump administration reached agreement early Wednesday on a $2 trillion stimulus package to rescue the economy from the coronavirus assault, setting the stage for swift passage of the massive legislation through both chambers of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced the breakthrough on the Senate floor around 1:30 a.m., after a long day of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials.

“At last we have a deal,” McConnell said. “After days of intense discussion, the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic relief package for this pandemic. … I’m thrilled that we’re finally going to deliver for the country that has been waiting for us to step up.”

“Help is on the way, big help and quick help,” Schumer said. “We’re going to take up and pass this package to care for those who are now caring for us, and help carry millions of Americans through these dark economic times.”

The agreement capped five straight days of intensive negotiations that occasionally descended into partisan warfare as the nation’s economy reeled from the deadly pandemic, with schools and businesses closed, mass layoffs slamming the workforce and tens of thousands falling ill.

The legislation, unprecedented in its size and scope, aims to flood the economy with capital by sending $1,200 checks to many Americans, creating a $367 billion loan program for small businesses and setting up a $500 billion fund for industries, cities and states.

Other provisions include a massive boost to unemployment insurance, $150 billion for state and local stimulus funds, and $130 billion for hospitals. The bill more than doubled in size in just a few days.

As with any bill like this, there are bound to be a few turds in the giant punch bowl; loopholes and pork that got packed into the package, so we’ll see, but at least they did what we pay them to do.

Trump: Your Money Or Your Life

Via the Washington Post:

With President Trump saying he wants “the country opened” by Easter to salvage the U.S. economy, a fierce debate is now raging among policymakers over the necessity of shutting down vast swaths of American society to combat the novel coronavirus.

Health experts point to overwhelming evidence from around the world that closing businesses and schools and minimizing social contact are crucial to avoid exponentially mounting infections. Ending the shutdown now in America would be disastrous, many say, because the country has barely given those restrictions time to work, and because U.S. leaders have not pursued alternative strategies used in other countries to avert the potential deaths of hundreds of thousands.

But in recent days an increasing number of political conservatives have argued that the economic cost is too high. At a town hall broadcast Tuesday, Trump suggested dire consequences if at least some economic sectors aren’t restored.

You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said. “You’re going to have all sorts of things happen, you’re going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”

At the event, Trump amplified a message that has been bubbling among conservative pundits in recent days. Speaking of the economy, he said, “The faster we go back, the better it’s going to be.”

So what he’s basically saying is that it’s more important that Wall Street — located in the epicenter of the outbreak — gets rich again than have people survive and are healthy.  The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, said much the same thing: better that some old people fall off the perch so that the younger survivors can get back to work.  Or the beach.

The bottom line for Trump, of course, is to guarantee his re-election, and the longer the pandemic continues and he keeps on flailing at it, the worse it is for him.  So no wonder he wants America to return to work and that all the restrictions are eliminated.  He wants to make sure that his base can get out there and vote for him.  That’s kind of hard to do when you can’t leave your house, and it’s only in certain wards of Chicago that dead people vote.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Where Shopping Is An Adventure

Publix Supermarkets announced that they will have “special hours” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between 7 and 8 a.m. for people over 65 to go shopping to avoid the crowds.  As a friend pointed out, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to bring the most vulnerable population together under one roof, but I went anyway.  Here’s what I saw when I went to the store in Pinecrest, Florida, at 7:03 a.m. today.

As I noted on my Facebook page, I haven’t seen this long a line of people of my generation since they announced ticket sales for the CSNY reunion tour.

Inside, about half of the shoppers were wearing surgical masks, and they were doing their best to keep distances, but it didn’t stop the usual backup in the aisle when someone stopped to stare at a can of beans and block the entire aisle. You heard a lot of coughing, but it wasn’t the virus; it was an attempt to get their attention, as opposed to “Hey, move along.”

Actually, people were quite polite if not a little dazed at the concept of grocery shopping at that hour, and while there were noticeable gaps in the shelves — paper products were gone, as were a lot of the yogurt products — one thing follows the other, I suppose — but I was able to get everything I wanted: salad makings, milk, some dairy, fresh fruit (blueberries!) and chips and salsa.

And now I’m back home again for another day of social distancing.  One adventure a day is enough, thank you.

Virtual Community

It’s one thing to do social distancing; staying home, staying away from others.  But one thing that has blossomed is the virtual community I’m a part of, and that’s my fellow playwrights.  We’re all hunkered down, watching the world, and writing about it.

Through the social network, be it Facebook or some other app like Zoom, we’re keeping in virtual touch, sharing our work, supporting and attending virtual readings, and finding new works.  So an art form that depends on gathering people together in one place is, in its own way, thriving by being isolated.

The show must go on.  And it will.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Spring Break

This is technically the first day of Spring Break for the public schools in Miami-Dade County, but it actually started last week when the state said to close all the schools until April 15.  My part-time job continued on last week as the school where I work turned into a food and laptop distribution center for the families whose children attend the school.  I am not sure when I will go back to work; no one really is.

One of the elements of this new world that we are dealing with is the uncertainty principle.  No one can really say when this pandemic will be over; some say weeks, some say months, some say even with a vaccine there will be remnants that linger.  Our lives will change on a scale we cannot comprehend or imagine, and that, for a society and a civilization that needs order and certainty, is a very scary prospect.  We seek reassurance and action, not platitudes, and despite the attempt from everyone that they are doing their best and “we are all in this together” ads from everyone from the plumber to the federal government, this invisible menace’s biggest threat isn’t the disease itself but not knowing.

We are dealing with it in very human ways.  We look for humor, we look for solace, and even if we are told to keep our distance, we are finding new and inventive ways to cope without endangering our health or our sanity.  The one weapon we have is our natural instinct for hope and perseverance and even optimism.  As John Patrick noted in the play “The Curious Savage,” we are by nature optimists; otherwise we’d eat our young.  So instead of being upset that I can’t go visit my parents in person, I’ll do my best to reach out to them and re-book the flight and hotel for a time when I can.  I’m very sorry that the William Inge Festival and the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Festival have been postponed until 2021, but I’m in touch with people from both of them and they’re finding ways to do virtual readings and sharing.  Meanwhile, the amount of writing that I know my fellow playwrights are doing is growing exponentially, and we are sharing our work and making it happen new ways.

So, since it is Spring Break, I am doing what I can to make it so.  I will do what I usually do: write, read, and be aware of my surroundings.  If you’re looking to me for great words of wisdom, all I can offer is what Bobby Cramer said: Hope is my greatest weakness.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sunday Reading

It Could Take a While — Juliette Kayyem,  former Department of Homeland Security official and author of Security Mom, on how long will this last.

Get your battle rhythm, I keep telling myself, as I put on my oversize sweatpants for the third day in a row. Staying inside, away from our offices, routines, and community, feels jarring even for those who, on a rational level, understand the need for extreme social distancing. The good side is having more family time. But everything seems upended, even to homeland-security professionals who argued for upending everything to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Just as seasickness abates once you can see the shore, the disruptions that the country is now experiencing would be easier to manage if we knew they would end soon. The community-isolation effort happened remarkably fast—within days, whole communities all but closed down, and earlier this week the federal government finally recommended the same. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state of California to stay home “until further notice.” But the way the crisis ends will be far more muddled. There isn’t going to be one all-clear signal—and certainly not one anytime soon.

As the days and weeks in isolation go by, and the shock of What just happened? turns to Family time is overrated, people will become more insistent on knowing two things: When will the pandemic end? And when can we go back to normal? Those questions have different answers, and the answer to the latter—far from being a purely scientific decision—will be guided by ice-cold moral and political calculations that nobody wants to discuss out loud.

From a public-health standard, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months. The only complete resolution—a vaccine—could be at least that far away. The development of a successful vaccine is both difficult and not sufficient. It must also be manufactured, distributed, and administered to a nation’s citizens. Until that happens, as recent reports from the U.S. government and from scientists at London’s Imperial College point out, we will be vulnerable to subsequent waves of the new coronavirus even if the current wave happens to ebb.

None of which means that people now hunkered down at home will keep doing so through late 2021. The economic consequences of an indefinite lockdown are unsustainable. And at a certain point, the emotional tensions that staying home imposes upon families, as spouses grate upon each other and children get bored and fall behind on their schoolwork, become a danger to domestic harmony, and maybe even to everyone’s sanity.

At the moment, we are just playing for time. Whether social distancing is working will be clearer in a month than it is now, but even then we will not know to a moral certainty when adults can safely go back to the office and children can go back to school. Which is partly why employers, university officials, and others have given such widely varying time frames for how long they are shutting things down—two weeks, until the end of April, until the end of the academic year, until sometime later.

Two weeks, for what it’s worth, is just a way of breaking the bad news easily. If anything, we are likely to see more draconian distancing measures if the data start to show success. The goal of social distancing, as everyone now knows, is to “flatten the curve”—to keep the number of COVID-19 cases from spiking faster than the medical system can mobilize to handle them. But a flatter curve is longer; a failure of social distancing would mean the peak comes sooner—at a horrifying cost of lives—but also that Americans are back outside sooner.

If entirely suppressing the coronavirus is a public-health ideal, crisis management is the homeland-security standard. The goal is to minimize risk, maximize defenses, and maintain social cohesion at the same time. In a society that must start moving again at some point, emergency-management planners looking at the metrics may seem heartless.

In the military, commanders must make calculations about acceptable losses; the benefits of a mission have to be weighed against the certainty that some soldiers will be lost. We don’t have such language in the homeland-security world, but trade-offs are still inevitable. The wrenching decision to open up again—to accept more exposures to the coronavirus as the price of an earlier economic revival—is simply a judgment call. It is too late to prevent tragedy entirely; our goal is to manage it within the limits of scientific progress and public tolerance.

In the weeks to come, we should see a surge not only of patients, but also of supplies. The federal government has two main jobs right now: to get testing kits distributed nationwide, and to quicken the flow of money and expertise to support state and local efforts and expand the capacity of the health system. Go big or go home—the classic warning against half measures—is an old emergency-management maxim, and current circumstances give it an ironic twist: Because Americans are at home, the federal government needs to go big.

Managing the pandemic well doesn’t mean eradication; it means that our ability to mitigate how many people die—our ability to isolate those sick, test their contacts, care for them in available intensive-care beds with available respirators—is working. Social distancing, currently our primary tool to manage the burdens on our health-care system, will eventually give way to efforts to quickly identify those infected, before they can expose others, and also to treat those already exposed. Even before a vaccine is available, the United States will fall into a steady-state suppression effort—which is to say, life will go on, even as public-health officials play whack-a-mole with individual outbreaks.

So, that’s the plan. Sometime between now and when a vaccine becomes available, restaurants and schools and offices will reopen. It won’t happen all at once, as if by official decree, but as individual households and workplaces conclude one by one that they’ve had enough—and that the surge in testing kits, intensive-care beds, and other resources is finally sufficient to meet the need. That won’t take a year and a half. But I expect to be in these sweats for at least another month—and I’m planning for two.

Richard Burr Has It All — Satire from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) —In a new controversy ensnaring the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forty per cent of the nation’s toilet-paper supply has been found in Senator Richard Burr’s garage.

The discovery of the coveted paper products occurred on Saturday morning, when Burr, who had been checking stock quotes on his phone, accidentally leaned against his garage-door opener.

The garage immediately disgorged the priceless cache of toilet paper, which tumbled into the street and snarled traffic for three blocks.

Picking through the mess, a sharp-eyed neighbor of Burr’s found a Costco receipt indicating that the senator had purchased the toilet paper in early January, shortly after he received classified information about the potential scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an official statement, Burr angrily denied that there was “anything inappropriate” about the mountain of toilet paper he was hiding in his garage.

“My wife buys all of the toilet paper in our house and has done so since we wed, in 1984,” he said. “I have never been a part of those decisions, and any attempt to imply otherwise is a malicious hit job.”

Burr said that, in order to dispel any suspicions about his actions, he was offering to donate the toilet paper to U.S. citizens for only thirty dollars a roll.

Doonesbury — Good eye.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Big Bucks

From the Washington Post:

Americans could get a check for $1,000 or more in the coming weeks, as political leaders coalesce around a dramatic plan to try to prevent a worse recession and protect people from going bankrupt.

The idea took off Monday when Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called for every American adult to receive a $1,000 check “immediately” to help tide people over until other government aid can arrive. By Tuesday, there was bipartisan support for the idea, including from President Trump. The White House even suggested the amount could be over $1,000, an acknowledgment of how big the economic crisis is becoming.

“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, adding that Trump wants checks to go out “in the next two weeks.”

Great idea.  I’m all for it, especially since I work hourly and only get paid when I show up, and my job is shutting down for at least two weeks, if not more.  And even if I was on contract like I was before I retired, I’d still be in favor of it because that’s what government is supposed to do: support the people it works for.  After all, those are our tax dollars.

What’s ironic is that this plan and the rest of it — bailing out the airlines and other industries hit hard by the pandemic and shut-down — is socialism with a big red capital S.  This is what happens in places like Sweden and Denmark when catastrophe hits and the people are in need.  And it’s what the preamble of the United States Constitution promised We The People.

Adding to the irony is that when Republicans, especially those from the heartland who are so proud of how they are so independent and don’t need the guvamint coming in with all their pointy-headed liberal ideas about sharing the wealth and all that commie pinko nonsense, are the first hogs to the trough when it comes to farm subsidies and giving out money to farmers hit hard by the tariffs against the Chinese or the Russians, even if they are imposed by their guy in the White House.  And now you have whooping bipartisan support to give out free money to just about everyone whether they need it or not.  But it’s an emergency, isn’t it?  Yes.  But then again, for a lot of people who work three jobs and can’t afford health insurance, even Obamacare, every day life is an emergency, and one check for $1,000 during a global pandemic isn’t going to pay the rent in July.

It’s hard not to be cynical and wonder out loud if this isn’t a rather naked ploy to get Trump back in the good graces of the electorate.  That’s how he’s run his business and his life: he thinks he can throw money at it — or at least say he will — and that will solve the problem, at least in his way of thinking.  Oh, I do believe it’s a good idea, and when the check arrives, I’ll take it and deposit it.  But that doesn’t mean I will vote for him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Primary Day

In spite of the coronavirus shutdowns and lockouts, the Florida primary election is going forth.  I have seen scant election junk mail about it, and less on TV.  I couldn’t tell you who’s running in the local races because there aren’t any in my precinct that I’m aware of.  But I’m going to vote; I haven’t missed a primary since I started voting in 1972.

I went to work yesterday, and I’ll be going back today and probably tomorrow; time, tide, and paperwork wait for no one.  Our students have been given laptops and distance-teaching is going on.  So far the general atmosphere at work and other places I’ve been such as Starbucks, which is limiting itself to to-go orders, has been one of acceptance and accommodation: “Hey, we’re all in this together, thanks for stopping by and stay safe.”

It’s also St. Patrick’s Day, but it looks like the celebrations are going to be reduced to the level of those they have in Ireland itself, where they don’t appear to make a big deal out of it no matter what the viral load is.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Social Distancing

So begins the first full week of the country trying to keep its distance.  But first we must stock up.

This was the Publix Supermarket in Pinecrest, Florida, yesterday morning at around 7 a.m. That’s when I usually do my shopping — early Sunday morning — and usually I have the place all to myself. Yesterday it was as busy as a Saturday morning at 10, and the shelves in some aisles — specifically the bread aisle — had yet to be restocked.  The shoppers’ carts were full of everything from paper towels to bottled water, and a few people were wearing surgical masks.  It was orderly, but as I was taking my bags out to my car a woman pulled up in a car and asked me what it was like inside.  Pretty crazy, I said, and she laughed.

The CDC is recommending cancelling events for more than fifty people for the next eight weeks, which takes us to the first week of May.  Miami-Dade County Public Schools is closing for spring break a week early starting today, and then will see how it goes after those two weeks before deciding what to do. I spoke with a friend — via text — who still works for the district and was told that management are to come in while administrative staff are off, and teachers are figuring out how to teach via the internet.  I suspect Zoom and Skype are going to get a lot of new subscribers.

What I’m seeing via social media — mainly Facebook — is that we as a nation are coping with this pandemic pretty well.  Yes, there’s the usual amount of rumormongering and bullshit, but so far the people I’ve seen and heard from are taking it in their stride, dealing with family issues, adjusting to this situation with concern but also with humor.  The unifying point seems to be that they’re all pretty disgusted with how the current administration is dealing with it — or not dealing with it — and they’re finding that they can pretty much count on friends, family, and themselves to be ready for what comes.

It’s not like a hurricane where you can get hourly updates and track it as it looms closer.  It’s invisible and undetectable.  In a lot of ways that’s scary, but in one way it shows that we can work together and keep our heads about us while some others are losing theirs.  In a way, all this social distancing is bringing us together, and I don’t man by just fighting over the last roll of Charmin.  We’ll get through this and maybe emerge better for it, assuming we all follow the guidelines and stay healthy.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Reading

Going Native — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on Trump’s knee-jerk nativist response to a global pandemic.

In late July, 2014, near Monrovia, Liberia, two Americans, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, contracted Ebola. They had been working in a missionary hospital, trying to ameliorate an outbreak then racing across West Africa. The Obama Administration dispatched an air ambulance to carry them home, swathed in white protective gear, for treatment at Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta, and this touched off a media spectacle. The chyron story line was: Ebola comes to America. (Brantly and Writebol soon recovered.) Donald Trump, who was then less than a year away from announcing his run for the Presidency, weighed in on Twitter: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. . . . THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” He tweeted about the epidemic dozens of times during the next months, and called for a ban on travel from West Africa (“STOP THE FLIGHTS!”). The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy later concluded that one of Trump’s tweets, to the two and a half million followers he had at the time, was a “crystallizing moment” in the Ebola crisis, as Amy Pope, Obama’s deputy homeland-security adviser, put it, and that Trump had “created a level of anxiety in the country.”

He was just getting started, as we now know too well. Last Wednesday, the President sought to reassure the nation in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, as the COVID-19 outbreak was poised to morph from seriously worrying into the stuff of a bad Hollywood pitch: Italy a sixty-million-strong detention camp, the stock market in free fall, March Madness called off, Disneyland shuttered. The hope that Trump might someday grow into the dignity and gravity of his office was never realistic, but in this speech he put his narcissism and his reflexive nativism on exceptionally discordant display. “The virus will not have a chance against us,” he said, promising that he had put in place “the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history”—as if diseases had nationalities. He declared that “testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly,” only to be contradicted the next day by Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told a House hearing, “The system is really not geared to what we need right now. . . . It is a failing. Let’s admit it.” (Last week, South Korea, with less than a sixth of the population of the United States, administered at least ten thousand novel-coronavirus tests a day, while in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only some thirteen thousand tests had been administered since January.) On Wednesday, Trump advised the “vast majority” of Americans that the risk they faced was “very, very low.” Fauci had already testified, however, that “it’s going to get worse,” and that, if the response proved to be inadequate, “many, many millions” could be affected.

Trump won the Presidency while pledging to wall America off from the world; the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced his deep-seated belief in this impossibility. Quarantines and travel restrictions are a necessary part of a science-led approach to containing such outbreaks, because they can delay the spread of a dangerous virus, protecting hospitals from crippling surges of patients and buying time for researchers to develop treatments and vaccines. Trump often praises himself for his decision, announced on January 31st, to limit travel from China, a policy that public-health officials had recommended.

Yet travel limitations are only a part of what is necessary to manage a pandemic; coördinated action by governments is at least as important. Last week, Trump blamed the European Union for allowing the virus to spread on the Continent, and, as he announced a thirty-day ban on travel to the U.S. from European countries (the United Kingdom and Ireland, among a few other countries, were excepted—a decision with no grounding in science), implied that he was defending the nation from the epidemiological equivalent of a European invasion. He reportedly did not consult the E.U. before announcing his restrictions, a churlish decision that will do nothing to ease European leaders’ exasperation with him. On this, as on so much else in his foreign policy, Trump’s needless provocations have undermined U.S. security; it is absurd to suggest that the United States can contain this pandemic behind its own borders without extensive help from allies in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

On Thursday, Joe Biden gave a speech on the crisis that sounded like the start of his presumptive general-election campaign to unseat the President. “This virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current Administration,” he said. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this President.” Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday was one of the great Houdini acts of American politics, the result of his strong support among African-Americans as well as, evidently, the desperate desire of many Democrats to be rid of Trump by whatever means may be the most plausible. But, in the life cycle of a Presidential campaign, November is a very long way off, and the role of the present crisis in the election is no easier to predict than the trajectory of the pandemic itself. The promise of Biden’s normalcy—his respect for science, knowledge of world affairs, capacity for gentleness and empathy, boring social-media feeds—will surely be enough for many voters, come what may. Yet it is unusual to win the White House simply by not being the man who currently occupies it.

In 2014, as a Twitter provocateur and fearmonger during the Ebola epidemic, Trump auditioned a political voice that he now exercises in full, to extraordinary effect. He presides over a social-media and talk-radio ecosystem that inspires intense devotion among his following, even as it spreads misinformation that will inevitably complicate the efforts of those who seek to navigate the pandemic by searching out reliable facts. On Friday, at a White House press conference, he declared a national emergency—“Two very big words”—a move that, he said, would free up fifty billion dollars to fight the outbreak in this country. He added, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the slow testing rate. The President is steering the country through a challenge of yet unknown magnitude, one in which honesty and accountability will be at a premium. We know that he will not change. One way to survive the pandemic may be to tune him out.

Theatre In a Time of Plague — Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The Atlantic.

As with everything that the coronavirus leaves in its wake, the suspension of operations by most major theaters around the country feels surreal—though surely both inevitable and necessary—and follows yesterday’s announcement that Broadway will turn off its lights for at least the next month. Only two days prior, the producer Scott Rudin had offered $50 discount tickets to his Broadway shows, including West Side Story and The Book of Mormon. “I can’t pretend that great theater is the panacea we’ve been waiting for, but in the meantime we could all use a few hours away from the evening news,” Rudin said in a press release, implying that his shows might, in some form, offer at least emotional inoculation from a pandemic.

Whether theater provides an entertaining diversion from “the evening news” or might be the cause of further suffering, however, is a debate that goes back at least to Shakespeare’s day. Elizabethan theaters were frequently shuttered in London during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which claimed nearly a third of the city’s population. The official rule was that once the death rate exceeded thirty per week, performances would be canceled. (As an infant, Shakespeare himself barely survived an outbreak that killed his older siblings.) Like New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has banned gatherings of more than 500 people, London officials in the 16th century worried that people flocking to town to “see certayne stage plays” would be “close pestered together in small romes,” creating the means “whereby great infeccion with the plague, or some other infeccious diseases, may rise and growe, to the great hynderaunce of the common wealth of this citty.”

In the first decade of King James I’s reign, the plague meant that London theaters were likely closed more often than they were open, and Shakespeare’s troupe, The King’s Men, had to rely on royal gifts and provincial tours to replace their lost box office. (No such luck for Broadway shows on tour; my family’s tickets to Frozen were canceled—regrettably? mercifully?—this weekend in Oregon, where the governor has banned gatherings of more than 250 people.) In The Year of Lear, the scholar James Shapiro notes that nascent epidemiologists weren’t the only ones who blamed the spread of disease on tourists breathing the same foul air in enclosed entertainment venues; religious zealots also came after the theater’s purported immorality: blasphemy, lewdness, cross-dressing. One Elizabethan preacher proclaimed that because “the cause of plagues is sin” and “the cause of sin are plays,” then “the cause of plagues are plays.”

Conversely, plagues may have caused plays. It’s long been thought that Shakespeare turned to poetry when plague closed the theaters in 1593. That’s when he published his popular narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in which the goddess begs a kiss from a beautiful boy, “to drive infection from the dangerous year,” for, she claims, “the plague is banish’d by thy breath.” Love poetry, it seems, could be spurred by the plague, and—the seductive fantasy runs—even cure it. But Shapiro suggests that another closure of theaters, in 1606, allowed Shakespeare, an actor and shareholder in The King’s Men, to get a lot of dramatic writing done, meeting the demand for new plays in a busy holiday season at court. According to Shapiro, he churned out King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra that year.

Given that the bubonic plague particularly decimated young populations, it may also have wiped out Shakespeare’s theatrical rivals—companies of boy actors who dominated the early-17th-century stage, and could often get away with more satiric, politically dicey productions than their older competitors. Shakespeare’s company took over the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in 1608 after the leading boy company collapsed, and started doing darker, edgier productions, capitalizing on a market share that was newly available. In addition to business opportunities, the plague provided a powerful stock of dramatic metaphors. As Shapiro points out, references to the plague and its bubbling sores, called “God’s tokens,” surface in Shakespeare’s scripts from the period. In Antony and Cleopatra, a Roman soldier fears that his side will fare “like the token’d pestilence / Where death is sure.”

The ghost of a 17th-century plague victim haunts Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, probably the best known work in recent decades to respond to a plague—the AIDS epidemic that ripped through Broadway in the 1980s. Kushner’s HIV-positive hero, Prior Walter, is visited by his ancestors, prior Priors, who tell him of the “spotty monster” they faced in earlier eras, and prepare him for a revelation to come. The angel that crashes through Prior’s ceiling at the end of the play heralds an era of painful renewal—both for AIDS survivors, and for the theatrical community that rallied around Kushner’s work. The red-ribboned organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS now follows many a Broadway performance with a fundraising appeal. If a plague could cause a play, perhaps a play could help to stop a plague.

The fear that remains, however, is that the very qualities for which live theater is celebrated—communities coming together to witness human stories, responding in bodily synchronicity with laughter, tears, gasps, and coughs—could accelerate its danger. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written just after the end of the 1593 outbreak, the friar who’s supposed to tell Romeo that Juliet is only pretending to be dead gets prevented from delivering his message because he’s quarantined with a fellow priest who’s been helping the sick: “The searchers of the town, / Suspecting that we both were in a house / Where the infectious pestilence did reign, / Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.” Romeo never gets the message, of course, and he kills himself before Juliet revives.

Adapting Shakespeare’s play for the musical West Side Story, the playwright Arthur Laurents thought that a plague was too implausible a contrivance to bring about tragedy. In Laurents’s version, he rewrote the ending so that Maria’s messenger—her cousin Anita—is rebuffed by Tony’s racist pals, who assault her. You could see that assault staged in graphic detail, projected on a giant video screen in Scott Rudin’s Broadway production. But as the coronavirus spreads, the quarantine plot twist that Laurents disparaged may come to seem all too plausible. And a screen may soon be the only way to see the tragedy Shakespeare understood centuries ago.

Of course, it’s not only communal narratives that are being lost, but also the livelihoods of thousands of theater workers across the country. Shakespeare’s model provides little solace: Write while you wait out the closure; lean on wealthy patrons for bailouts; exploit your rivals’ demise. But maybe his plays themselves offer a remedy. I’d been planning to take my students at Linfield College, where I’m a Shakespeare professor, to a new adaptation of Measure for Measure at Bag&Baggage Theater in Oregon this weekend. Instead, we’re following the theater’s lead: “We’re continuing to wash our hands (à la Lady Macbeth) as frequently as we can.”

The most heartening lesson from Shakespeare’s era is that the playhouses will likely survive and reopen, again and again. What plays to perform when they do? There’s naturally been a lot of attention to Naomi Wallace’s 1997 play about the bubonic plague, One Flea Spare, a bitter diagnosis of gender and class divisions that rupture like one of God’s tokens when strangers are quarantined together in 17th-century London. But I’d nominate a play about communities of care that form in crisis: Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner. Hudes grew up in Philadelphia as AIDS and crack devastated her neighborhood, and the twin pincers of the Iraq War and the so-called War on Drugs rendered brown people disposable. Instead of despair, however, she offers a vision of recovery. The play is set in an online chat room for crack addicts, and then spills into the messy, physical world as virtual acquaintances learn to support one another’s bodies in need. It ends with an extraordinary scene of hand-washing—not as guilty expiation or necessary precaution, but as a ritual of healing.

Doonesbury — All you need is love.