September 26, 2020

Scylla and Charybdis

Today, I was either a slug or a sloth or perhaps some sort of hybrid. It took me something over three hours after waking up to actually get out of bed and I’ve had two additional cat naps so far and I may be heading for a third. I think my lizard brain has permanently switched from hypervigilance in the face of danger to a state of chronic play dead and conserve energy for further perils to come. I sometimes really do feel like I’m slowly being ground to fine powder between the Scylla of Covid-19 and the Charybdis of Social Isolation and have to remind myself that no matter how horrible things seem to be, I have a roof over my head, food in the pantry, a job that continues to pay me, and a large supportive circle of friends who remain part of my life even if we can’t be together in the usual ways.

I started these posts two and a half years ago in the face of personal tragedy as a way to help myself puzzle out thoughts and feelings and reinvent myself for a new phase of life. I assumed they wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone but I quickly got a response and a loyal readership, especially to my anecdotes about some of the odd things that have happened throughout the course of my life. I started to write those as it was dawning on me that I had aged into being an elder in the traditional sense. The elders are those with the life experience to understand the human condition and to translate it into forms palatable for consumption, originally around the campfire, and then later on in poetry, prose and song that could transfer collective wisdom generation to generation. They are the story tellers. My stories, without Tommy in my life, no longer had a home and were going to die with me if I didn’t start telling them in some form and this seemed as good a way as any to send them out into the world.

I assumed that these posts would revolve around the areas of my life in which new stories might arise… theatrical endeavors, travel, encounters with new and interesting people. But six months ago, all that changed as the whole world shifted and I started to write more and more about Covid-19 and its effects on the health care system, my personal life, and the world at large. And thus, the Accidental Plague Diaries were born. It just happened. I didn’t set out to do it. When I first started my Covid-19 posts, I assumed that the institutions that have saved us from serious trouble with infectious disease in the past would swing into action and that the whole thing would likely be over in six months or so, at least in terms of writing. Now, I can clearly see my own naivete. There is no clear end in sight at this point – and my posts on the subject are now at book length.

Everywhere I go, when I see people whom I haven’t seen for a while, they bring up my writing and how it has helped them make sense of a non-sensical world and how they are grateful for the combination of trying to stick to fact and trying to navigate a centrist position through the hysterical hyperbole that informs reporting on the subject on both sides of the political spectrum. I don’t know what to say. I’m immensely gratified that people like these essays but I hope they realize that I am as lost and confused in modern life as they are and that sitting down a couple of times a week to let my fingers dance over the keyboard is more about educating myself than other people. If I can find the words for difficult concepts that others can understand, then I know I’ve gotten things straight in my mind. And if I can get it together in my head, then I can pull it together to make it through the next day, the next week, the next month…

We’re now at seven million cases of Covid-19 in the US. We were at six million only three and a half weeks ago so we are in no way getting the pandemic under control. It’s now the third highest cause of death in the country (superseded only by cancer and heart disease). The long term effects on those who recover remain completely unknown. There are tantalizing glimpses of why it is so serious in some people and essentially asymptomatic in others. If those could be figured out, we might be able to figure out protections for the more susceptible and let the unsusceptible get on with life but we’re a long way from clear understanding. Life is beginning to return to pre-Covid norms in other parts of the world (but reporting in US media is spotty as it becomes more and more concerned with election politics) but those areas have robust public health programs not undermined by politics with authority to implement tried and true public health measures.

There’s a piece of me that wonders if part of the predicament we find ourselves in comes from the Boom generation’s refusal to accept elderhood. I’ve written before about how Boomers refuse to consider themselves as old, even though the leading edge is now in their 70s. I use the Cher scale at work. Cher was born in 1946, the first year of the Boom. I have my med students rate patient age based on Cher – Cher + 3 years, Cher – 2 years to help them understand just what a demographic watershed that year has proved to be. Part of the reason that the Boom has always felt young is that the generation above them, the Silent Generation, has smashed all actuarial tables in terms of living long healthy lives. Many of the cohort now in their 80s and early 90s remain with us and in quite good shape. The Boom, having always had stable elders to look up to, thinks of themselves as young in part because of that generation who have always been old to them. (Old is always fifteen years older than you are).

Cher ( born 1946 – Baby Boom) and her mother Georgia Holt (born 1926 – Silent Generation)

There is a lot of speculation as to why the Silent Generation have lived such a long, healthy life. The one that I think is the truth is known as the semi-starved rat hypothesis. This is a phenomenon first noted in rats, but replicated over time in many other species including primates. If you take the young of a species and calorie restrict them, it extends their life span. The Silent Generation was young during the Depression/World War II years. They didn’t starve but weren’t able to glut either. The long lived Silent Generation have helped keep the Boom from embracing their own aging and mortality and, as the Boom have been the political and economic power generation of the last thirty years, they haven’t developed a generational empathy for aging. What does this have to do with Covid-19? If the Boom can’t be old, then they can’t be in danger from things that happen to old people and therefore those things need not be worried about and policies that might help older people aren’t as important. This is being played out in very real threats to the ACA and Medicare which a shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court is not likely to help.

That’s enough for this evening. Going to go back to working on transforming my dining room into a movie studio for Zoom theater projects and have some left over Chicken Korma.

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