The holiday surge is officially over. Case rates have dropped back to where they were in mid November when the rise really began to take off, a couple of weeks after Halloween parties. Back then, we were at roughly 10 million total cases and 240,000 US deaths. Now we’re at 26.5 million cases and 450,000 US deaths. More than 15 million people sick and more than 200,000 dead because America wasn’t willing to stay home for the holidays. I’m being a bit unfair. If we had all stayed home, there would still have been some cases, maybe a quarter or third of those totals. We’re still looking at a lot of people that didn’t have to die who did because of our social hubris and lack of empathy.
Is the drop off due to human behavior or due to the vaccine finally starting to roll out in significant numbers? Probably a bit of both. About 5% of the eligible US population has been vaccinated at this point and the emphasis on the high risk populations of health care workers and elders in congragate living is likely to have a significant effect on mortality rates moving forward. While the numbers are still difficult to comprehend (roughly 1/730 Americans who was alive a year ago has died of Covid at this point) I’m finally starting to feel hopeful that we’re going to have a bit more normal life come summer. The local vaccination sites are working well, the only limiting issue is the supply of vaccine and my sources within the federal government state that there’s a huge effort within the new administration to get those bottlenecks ironed out as soon as possible. Many of my clinic patients are in the pipeline to get their shots and we are getting shots hand delivered to my housecall patients. I may be able to get back on the road to see them over something other than a computer screen in a couple of months.
I’ve been working steadily on editing all of these musings of the last year into something that may eventually resemble a book. The rough draft came in at about 115,000 words which is about 30% too long so now it’s time to edit, cut, combine, rewrite, polish, and drive myself generally crazy as I attempt to turn writing that;s generally late at night stream of consciousness into a coherent whole. Fortunately, I have an extremely talented editor in Steve Peha (a man I have known since elementary school) who is leading the way through the thickets of my sometime repetitive prose and we are on schedule to get a full polished draft done sometime in March. (I may ask a few of you to be early readers to see what you think). It’s interesting as I reread things that I wrote months ago to see how much of the book I was thinking about writing about the problems to come with the American health system under the pressure of the Baby Boom is there, only with a more literary quality than that book would have had and with a different thematic spine of the coronavirus and America’s failed response to it. In some ways, that makes the book much more me than the original concept would have been as it straddles the right brain world of literature and memoir and the left brain world of health problems and policies.
When I began these pieces last March, I had no intentions of them being anything other than what they were. My musings on life, the universe, and everything and trying to make sense of my place in it. But when the whole of society was upended and everyone was as uncertain as I, it became clear that I had a certain gift for putting those existential fears into words, finding the threads of hope, explaining the concepts we all needed to know in order to understand both the disease and the societal responses and the feedback I received kept me writing until I realized at first that I was accidentally writing a plague diary and eventually that it was a book about coronavirus, both the government and the health system’s response, and what that meant to one man both inside and outside of health care. If you’d told me a year ago I’d have the rough draft of a book finished and it was well on its way to being edited into readable form, I would have thought you were smoking something.
While I’m trying to not fall behind on the book project, I am taking time out for another zoom theater piece, Moliere’s Tartuffe. I think I first read it in high school and was amazed at how sharp the satire of religious hypocrisy was in something written centuries ago. It was one of those things that helped me understand that while culture and the trappings of society may change, humans remain fundamentally the same. I get the same feeling from Shakespeare and Sophocles. Le plus ce change, le plus c’est la meme chose. I’ve only seen Tartuffe staged once. Katherine Burgueño and I went off to a theater in Berkeley to see a friend of hers in it. When I picked it up to study it for this filming (I’m playing Orgon – the wealthy fool who takes in Tartuffe and is fleeced by him), I was struck by how absolutely relevant to this moment in time the play is. A certain segment of religious America has hitched their wagon to some very irreligious charlatans for the promise of wealth and political power and, as the church is pulled away from its principles for temporal ends, the hypocrisy gap widens and widens and diminishes both church and state. I think we’re learning the lesson that in a pluralistic society, both church and state are stronger when they leave each other alone.
I did some acting in elementary school. My first major role was as the title character in Rumplestiltskin as I was the smallest boy in the third grade. I was a tiny child and the Saunders genome is wired in such a way that the males don’t grow until relatively late. I was the smallest boy in my grade level all through elementary and middle school, remaining under five feet until I finished 8th grade (I shot up that summer). Being very small in middle school and having a reasonable intellect was socially problematic and I convinced myself that one of my best defense strategies was to be invisible and not make waves. (It didn’t keep me from being thrown in the dumpster because I was easy to pick up). Being invisible meant staying off stage so I entered high school not interested in performing but still enamored of the process of theater so I became a techie and moved from that to stage management and to directing. Sometimes I wonder what my life might have been like if I had been a different person and had started performing at a younger age. Would I still have gone to med school or would I have tried the NYC thing to see if I had what it takes? Who am I kidding, I would still have gone to med school. As much as I love the theater I made the decision around age 20 that I always wanted to have it as an avocation and a love and never feel like it was work. I also didn’t want to tie my life to a profession that’s more about being the right person in the right place at the right time than it is about actual ability. Of course, there has been a certain amount of the former in my medical career anyway. Sometimes it has worked in my favor. Sometimes it hasn’t.
I’m looking forward to getting back on stage. It’s not ego driven. Tommy always accused me of seeking the spotlight but I really don’t care if I have a lead or am third nobody from the left. I enjoy the process of creation with a team of people, each bringing their individual skills, both on stage and off, to create something ephemeral that none of us could have possibly done on our own. I choose the projects I get involved with based on the other people involved. There are people I like spending time with, people I want to learn from, people whose talent I admire. If there’s a critical mass of that going on, sign me up and stick me where you need me. I’m hoping there will be some outdoor distanced theater this summer and that we may be at a point where we can all gather again indoors in the fall. There are way too many shows on my bucket list that I want to be a part of before I become too infirm to run around backstage platforms in the dark changing clothes as I go.
Get Andy back on stage again. You know what to do to make it happen. Wash your hands. Wear your mask. Social distance. Stay out of crowds. Get your vaccine when you can.