An Open Letter


Dear Friends,

Feeling eroded by the vitriol poisoning so many of our online conversations these days, I recently posted my desire to leave Facebook.

The response from my friends surprised me. Nearly all urged me not to go and their advice and quips reminded me of a complicated fact: all those seemingly insignificant likes and angry faces and posts were all part of a conversation that, though virtual and disembodied, was no less real. A click on a thumb was equivalent to the daily salutations to the milk man or the smile to the grocery store clerk back in the day when we physically shopped.

In a diverse and civil society, a multiplicity of weak ties are the filaments that bind. And in a world where my friends are now scattered about the entire globe, and with many of us in some degree of isolation, Facebook offers the potential to perhaps keep some of those weak links intact.

Some folks asked for a deeper explanation, something that the truncated shorthand of social media posts makes difficult. A letter seemed in order.

 


 

I’ve never been a sophisticated social media consumer. I haven’t created friend’s circles. I don’t limit the audience of what I post. I don’t consciously seek out content. I willfully accepted whatever the algorithms dished up to me without establishing rules or filters. If I didn’t respond to someone’s post it was most likely because I hadn’t seen it. Show me the wild ecosystem, I thought. Serve up the stuff from varied quarters of a varied life in a varied world. Leave it all to whimsy and chance.

My daily drip included lovely images of my friend Larson’s cakes that he would bake at Hopi as well as inspiring updates on his weight loss. I had a daily window into my classmate Jonathan’s lawyerly reposts of fact-based reporting on the duplicity of the Trump administration. And even more lawyerly and rage-filled posts by my elementary school friend Robert about much the same thing. And justified rants about meth dealers in Polacca, Arizona. And consoling words from friends. And truly heartwarming posts from an acquaintance on the wonder and difficulties of being a first gen college student while raising her two young children on her own. And my friend John’s encyclopedic knowledge drawn from the far recesses of an encyclopedia that has not yet been written.

It was as if I was frequenting a neighborhood bar where I found bar stool commentary and consolation. It was friendship in that it engendered camaraderie. And yet not quite friendship, because it was after all just a darkened bar. But in the barren desert of the 21st century, you take love where you can find it. It allowed me to remain in touch where I might not have been.

I make it a point not to unfriend anyone. I think it’s important to at least have an inkling of where other people stand and how they feel. To pretend that they don’t exist may make my life easier, but possibly poorer. I feel that at its’ most basic, my job as a citizen is to simply be a welcoming and sometimes dry-humored friend.

And despite what we all know about the moral complications of Facebook, it seemed largely good. But I didn’t fully consider how the algorithms themselves would come to shape my experience.

Social media companies want their machines to learn as much as possible about us. The more the algorithms know, the more effectively they can learn how to act like humans. And the more the algorithms know, the more effectively they can push product. The thumbs and angry faces are one of many currencies in this economy. Users get a low-grade endorphin bump: “Yea! Someone likes me! Yea! Someone shares my anger!” And every like and dislike adds to FBs ever fine-grained understanding of who we are, what we might like, what we might buy, where we might travel, what hot button issues might divide or shape an electorate, and with devastating accuracy even who we might vote for. As a predictive agent, FB might have a more nuanced understanding of me than I do. They may even know the secrets that I am keeping from myself.

Facebook’s viability depends on my reactions. The more I react, the more the algorithms know about me and my friend network: our needs, our desires, and what we believe in. Every year roughly 1,500 petabytes of data is pushed through data sausage grinders on vast server farms in Eastern Washington and the deserts surrounding Phoenix to later reappear as ad placements or memes on some screen trying to sell some shit or some point of view, or encourage uncivil behavior, or cajole one to follow the lead of a miscreant politician.

Facebook doesn’t care how I react, only that I do. So the algorithms float me posts that in high probability will make me happy, at least enough so to toss a thumb. But they’ll also intentionally serve up things that may make me angry. A glowering face becomes just another data point.

With the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus now stewing in the soup of our already poisoned politics, the tenor of our virtual conversation became ever more disturbing. I would step into the bar hoping for a cheap cocktail, and instead encounter vituperative rage from friends or acquaintances blaming Democrats and fascists and the left and scientists and doctors and illegal aliens and abortions and vaccines and voters about this and that and the other. Hoping for camaraderieor emotional release, against my better judgement I sometimes even joined in.

In some room way in the back (you know, that room that you might not normally go into), I detected the sound of raging voices and the crack of pool sticks breaking over skulls as a full on brawl unfolded. And it was getting nasty. People were gathering material to make pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. Some were brandishing guns. To one of my sensitive temperament this watering hole felt neither a safe nor happy place to be.

The ever diminishing shared assumptions only amplified the discord. I felt as if a pack of mean-mouthed and mean-spirited bullies were challenging my knowledge of Santa Claus. I know he exists and I know he is good. I mean, we all do. He has always existed. I have decades of proof. Even though my parents are long dead and I’m married, presents have continued to appear each year under the tree. And each year when I leave out a plate of cookies and carrots, in the morning only a few bites are taken. Who in their right mind would leave half a cookie except for a very busy Santa? Imagine my sadness when I first saw angry memes claiming that he was fake, that I was a sucker for believing in him. Wait. What? Some people don’t believe in Santa Claus? Santa is as sacred a cow as there ever was. Some mornings mid lockdown would begin with a pit in my stomach.

The mechanics of this strange watering hole began to interfere with the shape of my days. Back in the era when we still had dining establishments, my time at the neighborhood bar was bounded. I might drop in after work, share the counter with friends for 45 minutes and then be home in time for dinner. The FB bar, though, was open for business 24/7. Back in the real world, I might get into a heated conversation over beers with my friend Leo and at 5:50 it was bottoms up. We’d pick it up tomorrow. But at the FB bar I might offer something and individuals up and down the line would provide their commentary. Out of courtesy I tried to respond where response was due. And folks in turn would riff. And all the while I needed to get home to put dinner on the table.

I responded not just out of politeness. As an informed citizen, had I not an obligation to call out falsehoods or dangerous ideas I encountered? And Facebook ensured that encounter them I did. Increasingly I found myself fighting with people at the end of the bar who — Christ — I’m loathe to repeat the horrible things that they said.

When the gal at the end announced that I was being played by the toy industry, I could not in due conscience let it stand. I lidded my rage and put forward scholarly proof of Santa’s existence. She countered with a meme. I felt drained. How in god’s name could I convince this ninny that Santa lives at the North Pole and I was feeling super scared for him because now the North Pole was fucking melting?

Given the location of my bar stool, my ears filled with competing noise. Soon not just my knowledge of Santa was being questioned. The Sanderites insisted that Biden was a serial molester and a shill for the fascist liberal elites. We would be better off, they said, to have the whole shit house go up in flames than elect him President. And the MAGAites said that Biden was a pro-death and senile racist allied with Obama the Islamist.

Staked positions were so rife with contradictions that they stopped making sense.

Some argued that shelter in place orders or even the emergence of the virus itself were orchestrated by Democrats to remove Trump from office (never mind that over a third of the world was sheltering in place.) One person shouted that the Covid-19 disease was not caused by viruses. Another insisted that he was just trying to keep an open mind. Perhaps folks were dying because sheltering had weakened their immune systems or perhaps they were dying of fear. The air was filled with a cacophony of unverified or poorly examined information.

There was the secret alliance between Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci that I had a hard time even comprehending. I pleaded that vaccinations were first administered by variolation practitioners who inoculated folks with powdered small pox pustules in the 1700’s, a sought after procedure such a scourge was small pox on humanity. And what about polio? Because of vaccines this feared disease is now unknown. I angrily asked the drunk beside me if he had ever seen a person with limbs withered by polio?

He hadn’t. See? No polio, no problem.

My counterarguments themselves soon descended into nonsense. Don’t you remember the Man in the Iron Lung?” I shouted. You don’t because the polio vaccine put the friggin iron lung industry out of business! Go visit Youngstown! Listen to fucking Bruce Springsteen!! There’s no more iron, man! The demand completely dried up!!!

And then I heard some Russian accented voice slurring something about the dangers of voting by mail and I suddenly myself defending enfranchisement in a democracy. It was goddamn eight pm, my family was waiting, and I was trying to prove the virtue of Santa Claus.

The more facts I provided, the more unyielding patrons became and the more reactive and foul mouthed my own responses. The shouting occurring at the separate ends of this horrorshow bar met in my own brain as a maze of convex mirrors with no exit but for the shattering of glass.

And the data points? They grew into a veritable flood.

Two blows put me on the ground.

I watched powerless as a cultural divide was manufactured over fundamental principles of public health. Right wing political action groups aided in part by foreign bots encouraged citizens to resist requirements to wear a mask, or keep distance, or shelter at home, suggesting any efforts at disease prevention violated civil liberties.

It was as if no small number of people had come to believe that the highest expression of our civic values would be to roar up in our cars and tailgate a Suburu driving mom with a Baby on Board sign dangling in the back.

Or that I had the right to blow cigarette smoke in the face of a bystander because I have the right to smoke.

Or to not wear a seatbelt because it violated my right to free movement in my own car.

Or that when passing a flashing sign warning of black ice, that the person ahead was correct in accelerating, believing that he was a good driver, or had airbags, or that the sign was wrong and the black ice didn’t exist. To this driver it seemed not to matter that hundreds of cars and eighteen wheelers were creeping along behind him, and that if he was wrong in this dark winter weather and he spun out, my EMT friend Paul would be the one to risk his precious life to save him.

Here I am even now, sufficiently agitated that I’ve spent precious time defending public health — or let’s just call it at for what it really is — the health of our public sphere, the higher interest, the social good, the health of the polis itself.

What, I wondered, has become of us? What foul air was fomenting within us such anger?

Many have written about how we got here. But how dearly do we find our way out?


These Facebook fissures make me long for an America that we seem to have lost, or that perhaps was only imagined. I’d like to believe that we as a nation rallied to fight the scourge of fascism in the 1940’s. That’s the story we now tell ourselves 75 years later. Perhaps lost to our sensibilities are the erratic dissent and cross purposes that prevented us from engaging for so long in the first place.

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

And we so easily forget the people who were excluded or endured their own tribulations (Nisei or Walker Evans poor,African American soldiers or African American anything). Perhaps our current fractiousness and ill will are congenital and not so different from our discourse and tensions of the past.

The Jolly Flatboatman, 1846, George Caleb Bingham

George Caleb Bingham’s 1846 painting, The Jolly Flatboatman comes to mind, though my remembered version is nothing nearly as serene as the one hanging in the National Gallery: on that raft the dancing figure creates a perfect triangle with the boat deck, not unlike the idealized dimensions of a Grecian pediment. In my minds eye, I remembered the boat as something more careening, jugs a swinging, the dancer teetering on the edge of the raft in a absinthe and mustard gloom as the flat bottomed boat drifted directionless downriver. Bingham’s brazen dancer still suggests something of my American ideal however, the America that perhaps posits strength and conviviality, resilience and ingenuity. America has always been rollicking and unruly, the only true rule being that in the end we are still just a mob. And if you let the mob mash long enough, well, meh, perhaps something may come of it. We are that dancer and we’d like to believe that his exuberance and unbridled joy will carry us.

But in this moment, I feel sadly and with no small amount of fear that we are witnessing the profound darkening of that buck dancer’s shadow.

In recent days I’ve found hope in two touchstones. One comes from a conversation years ago with a dear Hopi friend. He was lamenting some injustice by community leadership. You should exercise your rights, I suggested.

He smiled. Hopi don’t have rights, he said. We only have responsibilities.

In this challenging reframing, the individual matters less and the health of the community more. The wellbeing of one depends on the wellbeing of all.

The second consolation came from the well of friends who chimed in on my Facebook feed. Sociality, even in social media, provides the tender connections by which we remain a society. The message I received was unequivocal and clear: turn away from the darkness if you must. And let’s warm our hands together around the fire. I found myself reflecting on the nature of the hand warming and all the forms it took.

I took solace from my friend Larson, a Hopi man who posted a description of his first shopping excursion after 60 days of isolation. He described how he traveled to Phoenix and wore a mask. How he wiped down every surface he touched sometimes both before and after. How he kept his distance. How he looked about in dismay in those places where few did the same.

Larson wore a mask not because he is a shill of some conspiracy. Or because he is afraid of the virus. He did it because given our current emerging understanding of the disease, he does not know what he carries within him. He may be largely certain that he is not an asymptomatic carrier. But he is not 100% certain. So he felt that his highest obligation was to simply exercise care. He cared about the other people in Phoenix. And he has a great and abiding love for the community of which he’s a part. For Larson to show his love, to express his respect, to protect care givers and grocery clerks and gas station attendants and lots of hard working people, he need only wear a mask. Perhaps sanitize a shopping cart. Perhaps be alone for such time that it makes him feel sad and lonely. For Larson this hardly counts as a price to pay to do his part to ensure the well being of others. He was not asking what he could do for himself. He was asking what he could do for those around him. Larson embodied his civil liberties by wearing a mask.

I found solace in the poems that my friend Dan regularly posts.

Believe This
By Richard Levine

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.

How can we invite ourselves toward that content that elevates rather than diminishes our collective humanity? Dan expresses his civil liberties by reminding us in words that are beyond his own words of what it means to be human.

I thought of my Hopi friend Samantha who on one of her recent morning runs in the desert posted a photo. Above she wrote the words, “Morning prayer run for my mother.”

The Hopi Reservation, May 2020

Samantha believes that social distancing and isolation may be the best tools she presently has to keep safe the grandmothers and grandfathers in her fragile community. If you’d like a deeper understanding of what it means to have your world destroyed by a virus, ask anyone in Native America.

For Samantha, social distancing feels not at all like the death of liberty.

It feels instead like a shield protecting her community from death.

Until we know more about this novel disease, the risks for this small, already embattled people are too great. Samantha embodies her civil liberties by praying alone for her extended family members with whom she cannot be.

I am heartened by my friend Gary, not by what he posts, especially not for what he posts, but because in person, in the real world outside the Internet, I have seen his face filled with a glowing love for those human beings around him. I would encourage Gary to give voice to his civil liberties by expressing the part of his nature that is deeply compassionate and kind.

I am heartened by my childhood friend Scott who I’ve watched tread confidently into the middle of bar brawls and not engage, but instead put a consoling arm around a shoulder and offer up memories of a shared past. He exercises his civil liberties through goodwill.

I am heartened by my friend Julie — not necessarily for what she posts, (The algos rarely serve them up in my feed), but more for knowing that her fierce intelligence still exists. She embodies her civil liberties by being ruthlessly practical, by working to ensure that her counterpoints are, to the best of her ability, grounded in fact.

My friend Karin expresses her civil liberties first and foremost by being civil. And no less importantly by being civic. She follows local politics down to the school board. She writes letters to her elected representatives. She lobbies through the civic apparatuses available to us regarding issues that will make her local community a happier, more supportive and caring place to be.

My friend Mary has exercised her civil rights by assiduously studying how the Holocaust unfolded in Amsterdam and how it was resisted, and sharing those learnings through her writing and guided community discussions. She strengthens the meaning of the word citizen, by providing support to refugees in confinement who’s only human crime has been the harboring of hope.

My friend David exercises his civic duties by painstakingly weaving beautiful baskets.

And my friend Poppy recently cast her civil liberties wide by sharing some Jerry licks on some version of Shakedown Street, guitar peals so softly articulated yet so exuberant, so full of joy that they squashed my inner curmudgeon and made me smile.

And I guess I’ll probably always remain Leo’s friend. Partly because we’ve been friends since childhood. When I was young there was no food in our house, and so every afternoon for a good stretch of time I would go to his place and raid his refrigerator. He fed me when I needed to be fed. I don’t know why he did it. But I would count it as a civic virtue. I’ll remain his friend simply because he’s Leo.

Lastly, I am heartened by images sent by my friend Mary, a fellow American and epidemiologist who has devoted her entire professional life working to save millions from the scourge of malaria. She presently lives in Geneva.

The signs were everywhere, she said, in the town and in the countryside. One read, “We are all in this together,” Another, “You are surrounded by love.” In another, a hay bale statue depicted a nurse wearing a mask.

Geneva, Switzerland, May 2020

In Switzerland, Mary said, folks are largely of one mind and they feel as if they are working toward a common purpose. Certainly that is not alien to us as a people? What has made it so foreign to our own selves and to each other in this moment? These signs remind me of what we can be.

How interesting I thought, that the word to give thanks in French is remercier, the granting of mercy, literally that price which is to be paid.

Geneva Switzerland, May 2020

May I grant mercy unto you.

And may you grant mercy unto me.

These thoughts are partly about the infection of our politics. In Facebook and in our national conversation I feel both scared and sad that we have become so merciless, so quick to anger and cruel in word. From what vicious and damaged soul has this division on a daily and hourly basis been nurtured and spawned? And why have we allowed ourselves to adopt it?

These thoughts are also about bodily infection. So here are some provisional truths based on our current knowledge. SARS-Co-2 is a pathogen that our bodies, the human body, in it’s 90,000 years of evolution has never encountered. Our bodies do not know what the hell to do with this thing. Our bodies are learning as quickly as they can. Our bodies are paying the cost of that learning. And based on our knowledge of virology, without intervention, our education and the cost of that education could be borne for a very long time.

Secondly, no one alive today on the planet Earth has living memory of what it’s like to live through a global pandemic. So too our body politic is learning. And the cost of that too been great. And early indicators suggest that it may be greater still.

We don’t know what this disease is going to do. It could burn out. Or it could not. It’s mechanisms may allow us to gain immunity. Or it may not. It may have seasonality or it could mutate. Or it may not.

But it matters not what you or I believe. The virus itself in the end will be the exclusive arbiter of truth.

So if we believe life itself to be precious, does it not serve us to move thoughtfully and with care, and to do so together in a way that serves not just our own personal needs, but also the needs of the most vulnerable among us? I am young. I am invincible. I have a strong immune system. But others may not. And so perhaps I should adopt a standard that will help them feel safe.

And as for the social media stuff? I won’t leave the Zuckerchamber just yet. I’ll do the best that I can. For the moment we’re in this together. I’ll don my armor. Erect my privacy filters. I’ll do my best to turn my own voice away from dark words and toward all of you and the doggies and the fluffy bunnies and the pictures of sunrises and evening light. And I’m never gonna stop defending Santa Claus. There’s a healing yet to be waged. And it’s not about Covid.

It’s partly about me.

And it’s also partly about you.

But it’s mostly about us.

Sincerely,

Andy

May 25, 2020

####

For those who want a deeper or more nuanced dive into some of the stuff I’ve touched upon, you might look toward the following:

To learn more about the darker corners of the internet, the growing information divide, and the manner in which our information feeds are shaped by algorithms in ways we may not be aware of, take a listen to Rabbit Hole, a new series that is part of the New York Times Daily.

This Podcast Will Kill You has wonderfully funny, delicious (each week they have a Quarantini recipe!) and fact-based and footnoted in-depth primers on measles, pandemic response, Covid virology, and the history of and science behind vaccinations. These gals do great work. Any episode is worth it’s salt.

If you feel suspicious of the public health enterprise and the workings of the World Health Organization and the CDC, you might want to read some in depth profiles of the deeply committed professionals within these organizations. You could start with two from the New Yorker, one a fascinating window into the Epidemic Intelligence Service, and the other a profile of one of the early researchers into Corona viruses. Hopefully they can provide a more dimensional understanding of these hard working public servants, complex organizations and fields of study.

Folks who are feeling suspicious of vaccines might want to look at some of the critical reportage drawing connection between the current pandemic response backlash and the far right. I’ve seen an increasing number of vaccine hesitant reposting from Breitbart and even troll sites. :-/. It’s chilling to see how this stuff spreads.

If you’re interested in super duper solid in depth reporting on pandemic conspiracy theories, the predations of this administration, and the ways in which the pandemic is being used as a fulcrum by outside actors and the ill-willed to foment division in this country, the June issue of The Atlantic is outstanding. I strongly encourage people to read online, or better yet subscribe if you can afford it.

If you want a brief advisory on surviving and exercising our civic virtues in this challenging moment for our democracy, consider Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. This review in the Guardian is a super good start.

If you prefer a more dense read regarding Kremlin disinformation campaigns and the spawning of the authoritarian movements in Europe and the US, take a look at The Road to Unfreedom.

Or else if you have drive time and want a more concise and human voiced distillation of these ideas, you can turn to his talk at the Ideas Festival. Timothy Snyder, fluent in nine or so European languages is darn smart and kind and funny — he is a sobering and soothing tonic for those souls who perhaps wonder if they are going crazy in this moment.

If you’re looking for ways to bridge the many divides we are now experiencing, you can look toward Better Angels and Braver Angels — the latter of which sponsors facilitated meetings between people of different political persuasions to help us learn to talk again.

And for those who want to know a little bit more about Santa, there’s no better place to start than a rereading of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Public Good.

https://www.kqed.org/perspectives/201601139710/public-good

Public Good

I recently spoke with an acquaintance who works on a local farm supporting their CSA.  Each day she has had to decide if she will go to work and help pack the boxes of vegetables for the waiting families.  As she considered the family that ran the farm and the various workers, she decided at last to not go in and sequester herself for a period of time as a precaution.  

It gives pause for thought.  Just like our health care workers and grocery store employees, in this new environment our farm workers are in fact first responders.

Between 47 and 70% of our farmworkers in this country are undocumented workers.  73% are immigrants.  Upwards of 60% of those working in the meatpacking industry are migrant workers from Mexico. 

That means that much of the fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds and frozen meat that we have emptied from our grocery store shelves in recent days, came from the labor of hardworking people who came from elsewhere.  And in this crisis, this vital population is as vulnerable as the rest of us.  

This is why Public Health for the entire public is a Public Good.

If our undocumented farm workers and meat packers become sick, the linkages in our food system begin to break. And if they can’t get help or are afraid to seek help because of their citizenship status, the problems for all of us become much, much worse.

Even though we all may be in isolation, let us perhaps consider the ways in which we can support and help these vital members of our community.

With a perspective, this is Andrew Lewis

Eight Days from Now

IMG_3487Last night we got our daughter home safely.  

I’ve had a chance to sleep and to breathe and now it’s time for a cautionary word.  

Consider this a letter from the future.  Depending on where you are, California may be living in a time five to eight days ahead of you.  As of this morning, in our state we have over 1,500 Covid-19 cases and 48 deaths.  The number of cases in our county have nearly tripled from 8 to 22 in the last day.  These numbers will feel far away and quaint three days from now.

Our governor is presently requisitioning school gymnasiums, sports facilities, and thousands of hotel rooms to hold patients.   And Department of Defense resources are being deployed to set up triage tents. School has been cancelled until at least September.  This is what we are preparing for here and in this moment – eight days ahead of where you may now be, going about your daily business, perhaps thinking that this is a short term thing, or that since you work from home or are so remote that it will not affect you. 

But this may be the strange and uncomfortable truth.  

The Covid-19 virus most likely is already in your neighborhood or community.

This is no longer about you as an individual getting infected.

It may now be about keeping you from infecting everyone else.  

In essence, you need to function as if you yourself already have the virus and that you are at risk of infecting your family, your children and every one of your loved ones.  

Why?  Because several preliminary studies suggest that Covid-19 can spread before you show symptoms and that may explain in part why it is spreading so rapidly.  

This is why you must act before anyone shows symptoms, not after.  Once you show symptoms, once sick people start appearing in your family or in your community, the window of opportunity has already begun to close.  You may already be too late.

This is why Louisiana is in trouble.  Eight days ago New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras, and hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the country and the world gathered and drank and danced and kissed and vomited in proximity to one another.  Now, today, Louisiana is facing a public health emergency.  The rate of increase in Covid-19 cases that are presenting in that state is one of the highest in the nation.

This is why, in our household, we have already begun to live as if it were eight days past our current situation.  

Controlled laboratory studies suggest that under certain conditions the Covid-19 virus can survive for up to three days on metal and plastic surfaces, and up to 24 hours on cardboard or paper surfaces.  When you touch something, you are not just touching that surface. You are in a sense touching all the people who themselves have touched that surface.  

When I say surfaces, I mean everything.  The doorknob. The toilet lever. The shower handle.  The dresser drawers.  The top of your dresser. Your car door handle.  Your steering wheel.  Your mop handle.  The shopping cart.  The handle to the freezer door in the grocery store.  We touch hundreds if not thousands of surfaces every day and we are not even conscious of it.  

As well, and more importantly, instinctively and habitually throughout the day we all constantly touch our faces.  We scratch our noses. We pull our lips. We wipe our mouths.  We kiss.  

If someone is sick and coughs and touches a surface, and then you touch that surface and touch your face, you are in danger of contracting the virus.  

To make this real, I’ll describe what it looks like in our family.  

My wife is a physician.  The current modeling suggests that she may very well soon be on the leading edge and taking care of a great number of people.  She is also very much the linchpin of our entire family.  She keeps us all together.  As a family, and as a larger community, we very much cannot afford for her to get sick.

Two days ago I started to experience a sore throat and a mild cough.  Nothing at all bad.  Our lilacs are blooming as well as the crab apple.  It is almost certainly allergies.  At the same time, in recent days I’ve been in a lot of public places in a county that has already presented with the virus.  I was in Safeway multiple times, touching multiple surfaces.  I was in the hardware store, in the Mexican market to buy tortillas and cornhusks, at Best Buy and in the checkout line at Whole Foods.  I gassed up at the gas station, touching the plastic gas handle.  In nearly all instances I passed people who were congregating.  I walked alongside people who had coughs.  

I touched multiple surfaces.  

Because of the possible consequences to my wife, and my family, and my community, I have to assume that I have come in contact with the Covid-19 virus.  And now, when I cough, even if at the moment it is only because of allergies, I’m spreading droplets.  

I may be a vector. 

And now we’ll take it up a notch.  Two weeks ago, our daughter was living as an au pair in Paris.  France presently has the seventh highest number of cases in the world.  Last week she flew from Charles DeGaulle Airport to Geneva to visit friends. As a function of population, Switzerland presently has the second highest infection rate in the world.  That weekend, both France and Switzerland issued shelter in place orders.  The borders in Europe began to close.  Our daughter remained in Switzerland for another week.  The United States further tightened travel restrictions and our family collectively decided that our daughter needed to come home.  Over the next 72 hours she passed through four airports and four global capitals.  She passed by hundreds of people from dozens of countries. She sat in a bar with a person evacuated from South Africa where a national emergency has been declared. Two others in Border Control had come from Iran.  Another from Delhi.  She passed through border control with hardly a question.

She touched hundreds of surfaces.

We have to assume that our daughter is now a vector.  

While she was in flight, traveling from Los Angeles International Airport, I drove down to SFO from Sonoma County.   As I drove down 19th Street in San Francisco on that late Saturday afternoon, I saw small groups of young men and women walking huddled together down the street. People laughed and joked. They ate sandwiches while standing at the bus stop. They wiped their hands on their pants, and their mouths on their sleeves. They spoke and kissed and coughed because of their seasonal allergies.  They shouted and spit. At that same moment, hundreds of people were walking and congregating in crowds at Point Reyes National Seashore.  They were all being human, living and loving one another.

And the thought of it all made me frightened. 

When I met my daughter outside SFO baggage claim, she sat with her luggage, a mask on her face.  We did not hug. We did not come close to one another.  Instead, I had brought her doggie who was able to run up to her. They hugged and greeted, I wiped off my hands with a sterilized wipe.  I gave one to my daughter and she wiped off her hands with a sterilized wipe.  We tossed them into the trashcan on the curb. We loaded her luggage into the back.

And then my dear daughter and I and her dog drove home together for one hour and fifteen minutes in close quarters in our car. 

So. 

Today is no longer today.  A little over a week ago, it was today.  

On that day, I stocked split wood and kindling for the wood stove in our field house.  The following day it was tomorrow.  On that day I moved some of my clothes and books into the field house.  Two days later it was in the middle of this week.  I moved in a box of food and stocked the fridge with beverages.  

Yesterday morning, as a final preparation, we did a deep cleaning of our house.  And then today, which is eight days hence from where you all are, my wife and I and my daughter went into fourteen days of relative self isolation.  

My wife and daughter have occupied different areas of the house. We try not to share bathrooms.  For the next fourteen days, except for cooking and gardening duties, I’m living out in the field house.  

Our daughter’s luggage, her guitar case, her backpack, all touched by multiple baggage handlers, remained outside on her porch until my wife could wipe them down with bleach. We had our daughter change out of her clothes as soon as she got home and we washed them.  We all washed our hands repeatedly that night.

We eat meals together, four feet distant.  We have cleared all the counters and every surface of objects to make them easier to wipe down. We have disinfectant and rags out at all times.  In our family, I make the coffee.  I am the only one to touch the machine. After I touch it, I wipe it down.  

You touch a surface, you wipe it down. You touch a surface, you wash your hands.  You touch a surface, you wipe it down.

We are starting to be conscious of our hands and our faces.  Where are they?  I recite a mantra.  Hands, hands.  Face, face.  When idle, I try to hold my hands in front of me, fingers touching so that they are aware of each other. This keeps me from idly reaching out and touching surfaces.  Hopefully it keeps me from touching my nose and mouth and face.

I rub my hands across my nose and face.  Dammit.  I wash my hands.  We each have different hand towels put in separate places.

These are extreme measures, perhaps far beyond what might be recommended in a normal situation.  But you have to remember why:  today is no longer today.

In our family, our today is eight days from now.  

And what does that world look like on that day?  That day is the day that Italy experienced seven days ago.  On that day, California hospitals are beginning to feel overwhelmed.  Triage rooms are filled. We do not have enough ventilators. We do not have enough physicians. My wife and many other physicians no longer have the luxury of performing telemedicine.  On that day, physicians start to work fifteen hour shifts. Patients line the hallways on gurneys.  Nurses and doctors and medical assistants start to break from the strain.  Personal protective equipment is increasingly no longer readily available.  Soon everybody knows someone who is sick or dying. As is presently happening in Italy, bodies start to accumulate in the churches and morgues. 

And for that day, my wife needs to be well.  We cannot get her sick.  When she comes home, she cannot afford to have any additional vectors. All of our lives, not just in our family, but in our larger community, may depend on it.  Touch a surface, wipe it down. Keep your distance.  

And here is the crazy part of all this dystopian time travel.  If we all do this, if we act in the extreme, if we actually succeed – then that tomorrow will never come.  We will actually prevent a terrible future from happening.  And then we will have the greatest of luxuries. Once again,  today will only exist as today.

And that will be a very, very, very, good thing.

Jupiter

 

JupiterOur cat Jupiter who held dominion over our house for nearly 20 years – a third of a lifetime — passed away yesterday morning. 

Jupiter was born in the summer of 2001 in the Taft dairy barn in Huntington, Vermont.  She had the colorings of a Holstein. And though small, and short of leg, her muscles were strong and her temperament was fierce.  She spent her first days with us in a small bed in the kitchen of Jubilee farm along the Huntington River.  And a few weeks later a stranger brought her to us in Seattle as a carry on.

Jupiter had more volition and more natural ability than some people I know.  One evening in Seattle when she was still a kitten, we came home and found her locked out of the house.  She sat on the porch and glared at us through the pouring rain.  She turned, walked to the door, leapt up, looped her paw through the front door handle, hung there and stared at us while she swatted at the latch attempting to open it. 

Each day she would awaken before the sun rose, climb on my chest and tag me in the face.  Sleepily, I would crawl out of bed and follow her to the kitchen.  She insisted on leading, yet would stop every few steps, turn and tag me on the foot, as if to say, stay in line and follow in step.  

For two decades all animals and people that came into our lives would sit or stand in abeyance to her.  The dogs would refuse to mount the stairs or go through a door until she had stepped aside.  

She lived in Vermont.  And Seattle. And Hopi where unlike many other cats she managed to survive.  She came to California.  She prevailed through fires and floods and moves and evacuations.

Seven years ago, a Thai hunting dog seized her in his mouth and shook her like a rag doll. Even then she held her own, rendering the dogs snout into ribbons of scratches.  A few years later, her appetite waned and we took her to the vet.  He looked in her mouth. She has cancer he said.  He gave her one to two days to live.  We returned home and fed her milk as a form of palliative care.  So much for cancer.  The two days turned into four years.  

Our daily routines became more contorted around her needs and desires.  We would evict the other cats so that she could eat in peace.  At other times the dogs would sit and stare from a distance. She would eat a small amount, cast them a glance and then walk away so that the dogs could have the rest.  This is how she held her power.  

In her last few months she refused to give.  Friends would call and through the telephone they would hear her meow loudly.  Is that Jupy? they would exclaim.  

And in the very last month family members begged me to put her down. But even in her weakened state, she would exit the bathroom where she slept and make her way down the stairs to be with people and all the other creatures.  She spent Thanksgiving surrounded and stood over by friends and family.  Jupiter, of all animals, if she had the will to live, then dang it, she deserved to live.  

During her last two days we were in San Francisco.  The daughter of a friend spent the days at our house and fed and bathed her.  When we returned home, Jupiter could no longer stand.  I picked her up, lay on the couch and placed her on my tummy – her favorite place to be when she was a kitten.  She purred and fell asleep.

We buried her this evening with a foundation stone and some manure from that dairy barn (long since torn down) where she came into this world.  Beside her we placed some Taft maple syrup from the sugar bush just up the hill from where she was a born.

That cat kept everyone in line.  Get up, she would say.  I demand to be fed.  It doesn’t matter if you are tired or sad or disheartened.  This is not your time.  Get up, she would insist, and get with the program.

Finding Power

And the radio version:
Kincade fire
During the last wind event of the Kincade Fire, I along with a few neighbors had returned to our Sebastopol homes to prepare for any flying embers.  All of us had been without power or water for days.
PG&E was in a bummer of a position, I thought.  “Sorry folks.  We have to turn off the only service we provide.  And if we turn it back on,  it might kill you!”  They were powerless.
I set to cleaning spoiled food from our fridge, raking up possible debris, setting aside additional possessions that I would take if I had to evacuate.  As dusk fell and the Diablo wind picked up, I carried a box of perishables through the pitch down to our neighbor who had been running a generator.
While there, another neighbor walked in the door.  She had just returned from a shelter. Alone in her darkened home, the stress of the previous days had overwhelmed her and she was having an emotional meltdown.  She sat on on the floor and sobbed violently.
We did what we could to console.  We made tea.  We cooked up an Angus steak that had been on ice for a few days, opened up a jar of olives and braised some chard picked from the garden.  We got some food in her.  Others showed up.  One with a bottle of Japanese whiskey.  It became a kind of mid-apocalypse party.
We told our neighbor that she was fine, that she was safe.  She was surrounded by powerful people.  One of them, after all, even had power.  But then I realized that she may have been the most powerful one of all.  If not for her, we would all have been sitting alone in our darkened homes.  If not for her, we would not all have come together.
With a perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Kincade

 

First and foremost, Anna and I would like to thank everyone for their concern.  We and all the animals are safe and things are temporarily stable. 

In short, it’s kind of like in the olden days when every so often you‘d go outside and see a big fire breathing dragon a few miles away up on the ridge line.  You knew that at least for a little while you might be fine.  But then….  It’s kind of like that.

And for those wanting a little more narrative detail, here you go.  There might be some helpful tidbits for those who find themselves in a similar situation:

Our dog Tierra and I had been in San Diego for the previous 10 days.  On Wednesday, a Sebastopol neighbor called me after midnight (thank you, Toby).  He was out of town, but had word of a blaze that had ignited near Geyserville.  He was worried, he said, about the wind speed on the ridges.  The winds were gusting at 90 mph, driving the flames 200 feet in the air.  The next morning I looked at the weather projections for the coming week and my amygdala went into overdrive.  In anticipation of the current situation, I composed a meticulous multi-paged fire preparedness punchlist, organized by event and threat level, and I emailed the list to Anna.  And yes, in case you’re wondering, Anna’s attorneys could easily put forward the document as evidence if she were ever to initiate divorce proceedings.  

Sick as she was with a bronchial infection, Anna started preparing on Thursday.  She wet down the property (before the well power would go), filled buckets and trashcans with water, schlepped family archives and photos and journals to the steel shipping container (still on the property from when we rented out our house to Tubbs fire victims), loaded the cars, charged her electric car and all devices, etc.

We stayed in intermittent communication. She prepared all through Saturday until the power was cut.  She could not access the internet (even on her phone), but I was able to keep her apprised of the situation and sent text updates from San Diego.  Evacuation warnings were issued that evening. By then I had decided to come home, but couldn’t leave because I had misplaced both sets of glasses. With limited night vision it would have been foolish to drive the 10 hours in the dark.  I lay down at a midnight, but continued to check notices on my phone through the night until the mandatory evacuation order was issued at 4:30 am. 

Tierra and I got on the road.  I figured it would be light by the time I hit the Tejon Pass and I could drive blind until then.  A dear friend texted and said I could pick up some Latvian pirogs on my way out.  I stopped in Oceaside at 5:30 am, scrambled some eggs, placed them on a stack of Latvian rye bread, and grabbed the pirogs (Thank you Raz and Velta Sulcs!).  Most important of all, Raz gave me her glasses (Thank you again, Raz).

Back home, our friend Toby helped Anna carry the remaining irreplaceable items into the steel container.  The thousand dollars of All Clad? Replaceable.  The moldy journal from high school?  Not.   Anna loaded three dogs and three cats into her car.  She left the chickens.  With Jupiter clambering back and forth on the dash, she called for advice on evacuation routes because she could no longer access Google Maps.  I pulled over at the Las Pulgas rest stop at Camp Pendleton and took a look.  The patterns were self-evident. Rather than descend into the line of dead standstill evacuee traffic on the Gravenstein Highway, I encouraged her to drop off the back ridge from our home into Valley Ford from where she was able to quickly make it to Petaluma where one of her patients had generously offered up a one room cottage.   

I continued on up the 405 – fortunately the Getty blaze had not yet ignited. The Central Valley was a sea of dust.  The winds were sufficiently strong to create white caps on the California Aquaduct. 

Dropping in to the Bay Area, the skies were eerily clear and things felt strangely quiet.  Power had been shut off to much of the Berkeley and Oakland hills.  I thought it curious how even close to major situations, life can continue to feel quite normal.

I arrived in west county around 1:30 pm.  With no power anywhere in Marin, I couldn’t get gas, but I did find a zone in Petaluma that still had functioning pumps.

In Petaluma I entered a 21st century climate change version of Noah’s Ark.  It’s definitely not as big as they make it out to be in the Bible.  But we are so very grateful and it is definitely cozy and welcome.  I, along with all the animals and a sick and exhausted Anna, are now clustered together in the small room. We have internet via our phones.  And we’re close enough to home where I can check on our property.

I visited the house last night and it was definitely a little spooky and forlorn. The winds have desiccated many things.  Water and power are off.  A pallor of smoke infuses the air.  I ferried more things to the shipping container and fed and watered the chickens.  Tierra sniffed and explored the perimeter.  I checked adjacent properties for fallen trees.  I found my first edition copy of Stephens Hopi Journals and Titiev’s Study of the Hopi (one of only two type written original copies that exist in the world) and placed them in the car.  After I locked up, I felt like I was forgetting something.  I returned to the darkened house.  I rummaged in the warming freezer and there I found it.  I grabbed the foie gras.

I drove south through the smoky pitch.  By the time I reached Petaluma, the winds were receding.  Anna was passed out.  I crawled into bed.  Tierra jumped on top of me and we fell fast asleep.

As for the current situation:

Last night fire containment slipped from 10% to 5% and the grew from 55k acres to 66k.  Firefighters were battling most of the night to control the blaze in the Foothills Park neighborhood in Windsor (you can see the concentration of hotspots on the Sonoma Incidence map).  They are also working to hold the line at the 101 Freeway.

Depending on the shifting winds, smoke can be pretty bad.  Presently (Monday afternoon) much of it appears to be blowing south toward San Francisco and the Bay.

The biggest present concern will be what happens when the second wind event hits tomorrow afternoon thru Wednesday.  The 50 mph winds will be coming from the north east.  If they carry embers over the 101 it will be a big problem and could spread quickly down the entire Russian River corridor. Our property would be in the path of that event. 

For those who are concerned and want to follow, you can check out the dynamic incident and wind maps I posted on Facebook.

At present, however, we are all fine and any effect has been largely collateral:  At our home, no power and no water.  Lots of smoke.  And us and our animals living in our own private refugee camp in Petaluma.  

For those who know the full demographics of our household, Jupiter, our 18 year old Vermont barn cat (thank you Bruce and Mary Taft!) is napping in the cottage bathroom. Every so often she comes out and demands that we get with the program.  I love having her here because she is the definition of fortitude and resilience.  

Gene Therapy for a Fevered Planet

Greta ThunbergAt a recent North Bay Bob Dylan tribute, I met a biochemist who manufactured blood proteins to treat hemophilia,.  As we talked, however, she announced that one day her work would go away.  

She explained that blood coagulant requires twelve distinct proteins.  The genomes of hemophiliacs, it turns out, are unable to manufacture number eight.  But it’s now possible to engineer a virus that contains the missing gene sequence.  And if we introduce the virus to hemophiliac bone marrow, the DNA will repair and gain the ability to manufacture the missing protein.  It all sounded miraculous and strange.  

Musicians took up their instruments and the lilting chime of Mr. Tambourine Man filled the room.  

Fifteen months ago, a young Greta Thunberg left school and held a sign outside the Swedish Parliament. She stood alone. Skolstrejk för Klimatet her sign read.  

A year later, millions of young people around the globe struck for climate change. 

In this long hot summer without precedence in human history, it feels indeed as if our planet is burning with fever.  And yet I feel tremendous hope.   I marvel at the mechanisms by which the genome of the body politic can repair itself.  Change does not come just through governmental edict, but can sometimes begin with a single act.  Any small act taken by any one of us. We need not wait to take those small, but necessary and infectious steps — gene therapy, if you will — that will allow our children to have a future.   

We need a system change, rather than individual change, Thunburg said to the body of the UN.

But we cannot have one without the other.

To do your best is no longer enough.

We must all do the seemingly impossible.

Everything needs to change.

And it has to start today.

With a perspective, this is Andrew Lewis

https://www.kqed.org/perspectives/201601139098/gene-therapy-for-the-planet