August 18, 2020

Traditional Move In Day

It’s another long post evening. It shouldn’t be. Ten hour work day followed by an hour plus zoom lecture for my church’s adult education program and I really should be curled up in a tight little ball watching some bad film for a a new column, but my mind is racing a dozen different ways so I’ll start typing and we’ll see what comes out this time. I’d like to write about some new theatrical project but there’s not a lot going on there. I do have a small part in an on-line zoom theater production of Henry IV part 2 based out of Columbia, SC (thank you Thurston Howell III and Charlie Goodrich) and I have been asked to do one of the leads in Tartuffe in a future zoom theater production later in the fall but there’s not a lot you can write about sitting at your dining room table waiting to turn on the camera on your cue and deliver your lines before turning your camera off again as your character exits. Classic theater is the way to go at the moment. No rights to pay. Usually constructed that the language is the most important element. Often a collection of French scenes that makes it easy to follow when the cast is a collection of little boxes winking on and off.

The local Covid-19 numbers are falling. This is good news. It remains to be seen what back to school is going to do to them. The news from elsewhere is not good. Both UNC and Notre Dame, which went back this past week with in person instruction, have shut again after flare ups. UAB is in the midst of move in. There is a brand new private student apartment/dorm development across the street from my academic office. I walked past it this morning on my way to the VA and watched move in day for a moment. Lots of excited young people and boxes doing what young people have always done. I doubt there’s going to be a lot of social distancing or mask wearing. I doubt I would have at eighteen or twenty.

The men of Gypsy – Virginia Samford Theater – Summer 2017 Left to Right: Kyle Bass, Lewis Armstrong, Benji Burford, Me, David Strickland, Hal McIntosh, Howard Green

I’m both sad and mad that it’s quite likely their chance to explore the joys of youth and higher education might just be jerked to a halt in a couple of weeks; it didn’t have to be that way. If this country had listened to those who know how to handle pandemic viral illness instead of to politicians with personal agendas, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be in the same position as most of the rest of the civilized world. Cautiously opening up and returning to normal life patterns and prepared to stomp out pockets of disease which are quickly and easily detected. It’s all heightened by the loss of my friend Hal McIntosh to Covid yesterday. Hal, known to generations of high schoolers as Mr. Mac, was one of the legendary theater teachers in town and a stalwart member of the theater community as a director and a performer. There are twelve of fifteen of us character guys of a certain age in town that get all the juicy old guy roles in various productions and I knew Hal from his work long before I actually got to know him. We didn’t do a show together until 2017 when I finally got to spend some time with him. (The character men in Gypsy all have about one scene each, and them two hours in the dressing room until curtain call). He was lovely and kind gracious and knowledgeable and dammit, he should still be here for another decade or two gracing the stage and encouraging the younger set to do their best and always improve. I’m very afraid he’s not going to be the last of the local theater community to exit stage left over the coming months. If your life hasn’t been touched by this disease yet, just wait, it will be. It’s too widespread and the numbers are too high for it to pass you by. The average American has a circle of acquaintance of roughly 5,0000 people. At current rates, thirty people you know are likely to die before it’s all over and hundreds more will have serious health problems, likely permanently.

My lecture tonight was on death, dying and advance directives – not the most light hearted of subjects but I have figured out ways to make even the most lugubrious of geriatric related topics interesting over the years. I first began public speaking in the early 1990s and it didn’t take me long to realize that having a certain patter and willingness to tell jokes and drop one liners when discussing relatively heavy subject matter kept people engaged, helped them remember what you wanted them to remember, and made them not want to slit their wrists after a talk on their upcoming infirmities and indignities that we all age into eventually. I picked a bit of it up by watching good lecturers in medical school. a bit from Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, and a bit from my own idiosyncratic background and early theater experiences. I’ve had a few people suggest I need to come up with some sort of one man show/comedic monologue about all the craziness of geriatric medicine and how it intertwines with the rest of my life. I could probably write it but I’d need a lot of help making it into a theatrical piece.

I did tell one story tonight. It was about death, at least tangentially. There is an odd quirk in Alabama law. You are not allowed to authorize your own cremation. Cremation is only allowed if your surviving next of kin allows it. (I’ve been told it was crafted by the funeral industry to allow for more burials – and it works. Alabama is the state with the lowest rate of cremation. I don’t know if that’s true or not, so none of my funeral director friends come after me with a brick…) Twenty years ago when Steve died, we had had plenty of time to prepare. He was sick for two years. He had gone down to a local funeral home and made pre-need arrangements. He told me he had handled it so I didn’t think anything of it. He was on hospice when he died, so hospice handled the transfer to the funeral home and I went down the next day to see them and to make arrangements for the cremation he wanted. When I got there, the very nice young man told me he was sorry, but they could not possibly cremate Steve. There must be a release from legal next of kin. Despite our 13 years together, I didn’t count (It was 2001, legal marriage was still a pipe dream). I held it together and calmly said that was nice, but his parents were dead, he had no children, and he was estranged from his siblings and I had no means of contacting them. What did he want to do about that? We sparred for a few moments, then he got a twinkle in his eye and said ‘I have an idea’. He went off and made some calls, coming back to me in a few minutes. He suggested we transfer Steve to the low cost mortuary across town where they didn’t ask too many questions. I consented, Steve was moved and off I went to mortuary number two. There, the mortician, who reminded me a bit of a pawn shop counter person, basically said ‘We’ll keep him for three days, if no one comes to complain, we’ll cremate him” wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more…

Steve was duly cremated, I received the cremains – what happened next is another story that I’ve already written up at least once. If you haven’t read it, I’ll try to find it and link to it.

So – if you want to be cremated in Alabama, make sure your family knows it. Your word, even in a will or final instruction’s isn’t good enough. Personally, I’m going to take Tommy’s approach. When I asked him about his preferences, he said ‘I won’t be here, you’ll have to figure it out’ and refused to return to the subject. I trust my family to figure it out – conservation of mass and energy will return my physical being to the cosmos no matter what they do.

August 14, 2020

Time to head back into the thickets of the Accidental Plague Diaries. I have no idea what I should write about this evening but that’s never stopped me before. Since my last entry, Alabama has easily crested 100,000 cases of Covid-19, the US death toll has climbed to nearly 170,000 and the world watches aghast as we prepare to send students back to school at all levels with community transmission still at unacceptably high rates. There is somewhat good news on this front. The percentage positive rate of tests in Alabama over the last week has come down from double digits and locally, the number of people in the hospital with Covid-19 has started to drop from a peak a few weeks ago. If these trends continue, the health care system is going to get a little breathing room. Any bump in numbers from back to school won’t occur for about three to four weeks.

I didn’t lose too many of my long term patients to Covid early in the pandemic, but I’m starting to lose more now. Three or four in the last two weeks. Some had been ill for some time, some were relatively newly diagnosed. I suspect that in pretty much all of the cases, a family member or friend brought it into the home after being out and about a bit more cavalier with their masking and social distancing due to summer weather and the wish for good times. When the grandkids and great grandkids head back to school, I expect I’ll see another uptick. I’ve also had friends lose spouses, parents, grandparents, and siblings recently. It’s not over until it’s over.

I’ve accepted an offer on the house and the real estate wheels are churning along and everything should be over and done with by the first of October. One more month of double mortgage payments… If the contract stands, it’s going to a family with young children where both parents work from home. Tommy would like that. He adored kids and working with them. I think the happiest I ever saw him was when he was teaching and leading his beloved children’s choir. Steve adored being the wicked uncle to children and leading them into mischief and then vanishing before there could be any consequences. There are days when I think I’ve missed out not having children, but then I realize that the unit of survival is the tribe, not the individual, and my role is to ease the burdens of the older generation and their nurturers so that they have time and energy to give to their children and grandchildren and I feel a bit better about my choices.

Covid and its roiling of health care finances has hit how my job works. The hospice I have medical directed for for many years and UAB are parting ways. Fortunately, it is happening at the same time that the VA part of my job is working diligently to expand the rural house call program to a new population centered in Huntsville so it’s all going to come out in the wash. Most of the house call work is still being handled through video conferencing but plans are afoot to get back into the field later in the fall. I will probably ultimately be doing a mix of field work and call work. I hadn’t planned on working in a call center late in my career but nothing ever stays the same in life, no matter what. As long as I can cobble together enough funding to keep my bills paid, I’m happy. I’m only about twenty months away from instituting the first part of my retirement plan. I am vested in the University of California pension system from my years there and it stops accruing when I turn sixty so I’ll officially become retired faculty from there when I hit that birthday and start drawing a pension. When I was young, I was sure I would flame out and be dead by thirty five. Now I’m becoming an old age pensioner.

I was industrious this evening after I made my dinner. I washed all of my face masks, got the iron out, blew the dust off of it, and gave them all a good steam ironing for disinfecting and dewrinkling purposes. Rodgers and Hammerstein is good music to iron to in case you were wondering. The weekend has a few chores lined up. I have to get my office supplies organized (currently they’re thrown in a closet). I bought some shelving to help with that which I need to assemble. Tommy and I bought a lot of do it yourself assembly furnishings and shelves over the years and we would sit in the living room trying to insert tab A into slot B with screwdrivers and rubber mallets kvetching at each other that he wasn’t doing his part right. I guess I’ll have to complain bitterly to the cats when something doesn’t want to fit this go round. I also have a couple of lectures to write for community education programs and there’s a dozen and a half progress notes from this week calling my name.

Now that the initial shock of the Covid world has worn off, I’m puzzling out how to keep myself motivated. Over the last couple of years, since Tommy’s untimely death, I’ve done it by having about one thing a month to look forward to: a trip somewhere, a show to rehearse and perform, a special concert. All those self rewards are now on indefinite hold and I haven’t figured out how to replace them yet. The effects of Covid on my job plus the craziness of moving have kept me sufficiently distracted in recent months, for the most part, but it’s unclear to me, now that things are settling down into new routine, what should come next. I have a few more projects to accomplish around the house, several of which will take some time, but those feel like obligations, not rewards. Maybe I’ll do a little weekend road tripping this fall, depending on what happens to the Covid numbers once the school impact becomes clear and once all the Sturgis motorcyclists make their way home and spread whatever they’ve picked up.

I’ve always been one to cope, pick myself up after reverses, and keep chugging along. It’s been present since I was very small. My parents tell a story about a camping trip we took when I was three or four (I remember the trip, but not this incident – I know my age as my sister had not yet joined the family and she was born shortly after my fifth birthday). My parents were very outdoorsy types in Washington State so we did a lot of backpacking and car camping when I was a child. My parents and I had gone up into the mountains where we had put up the tent and were enjoying the sights and smells of the Pacific Northwest woods. Next to our campsite was a large tree with some invitingly low branches and I wanted to climb it. My parents said no, it wasn’t going to be a good climb for someone of my size. (I was a tiny child). I wheedled and cajoled and put forth all my best reasoned post toddler arguments. Eventually I was told ‘Fine, but if you fall, don’t come crying to us’. So I climbed up, and sure enough I fell. It wasn’t a big enough fall to really hurt me but it knocked the wind out of me. My parents watched to see what I would do. I picked myself up, bit my lip, and uttered not a sound. I had been told the consequences and I accepted them. I’m still that way.

Go ahead and climb your trees everyone but, if you fall out, deal with the pain and shock you were warned about.

August 9, 2020

Buy my house! Please!

Well it’s been an eventful weekend, even though I’ve spent a good deal of it in a T-shirt and sleep pants lounging around the condo snuggling with the cats and writing a lecture on Covid-19 and its implications for older adults that I’m giving via Zoom as an adult education class for church this Tuesday. You didn’t think I was going to let everything I’ve learned writing the Accidental Plague Diaries go to waste now, did you? It’s been a while since I’ve written a lecture on a brand new topic for a lay audience. I think I’ve gotten all my ducks in a row, my facts checked, and I should be ready to go but everything changes so fast on the topic, that I’ve had to double and triple check dates on sources. If it was published before June, it’s likely completely out of date at this point.

My so called corona virus life continues in its usual patterns. Go to work during the week, sit home on the evenings and weekends with plenty of reading, binge watching television, some Xbox time, and Zoom meetings with various boards trying to help arts and other nonprofits weather the storm and plan for the future. I am no seer but I can help people understand the real science and medicine behind the pandemic so they aren’t relying on media reports tainted by politics or other agendas. I miss a life of rehearsals and performances and social gatherings but I’ll make the best I can of what I’ve got. I am so fortunate to have a career that’s rather impervious to pandemics, a nice place to live, people who care about me, and to live at a time in history where creature comforts are not that hard to obtain. I put up one of those FaceBook memes this week asking friends to define me in one word. I was enormously flattered by the responses.

The house is finally ready for market and went live yesterday. No firm offers yet but a few swirling around in the ether. It looks gorgeous in the photos. I’ve decided they must have taken the front photos by drone as there’s no way to get that vantage point unless you climb the tree in the parking strip and then shinny out onto a branch overhanging the front lawn and I don’t think anyone would be fool enough to do that. I’m not worrying about it selling relatively quickly and for a good price. Location, location, location. It will be nice to completely close that chapter and no longer have to pay two mortgages and sets of utilities.

It reminds me of the time that Steve and I allowed our condo in Sacramento to be put on the historic homes tour. We had been living in an apartment down by the old governor’s mansion but, in 1990, after we decided we were likely to stay together for a while, Steve wanted to buy. He had inherited some money on the death of his mother the year before and he found an old Victorian a little bit further uptown which had been split into two units with an additional three town homes build behind it on the lot making a five unit complex. He bought the top half of the original house, dating from the 1890s and we lived there for the next three years (and kept it as a rental after that until we left California). As the house was historic and we were good sports with the neighborhood association, we became a stop on the 1991 historic homes tour. You haven’t lived until you’ve had strangers filing through your house commenting on your window treatments, decor choices, and library selections. About half way through the day, an elderly lady showed up. She had been born and raised in the house as a child. Soon after that, a neighbor who was of her generation turned up and we served them tea in the living room while they caught up and told us stories of the neighborhood from the Edwardian era on.

This morning’s surprise was the general reaction to my PopTarts for brunch. They’re one of my weaknesses. I generally only eat them on Sunday with my on line church brunch. Apparently they are a bit of a flash point for my friends – I’d rather walk up over the hill for fresh pastries from The Continental Bakery but Carole Griffin cares enough about her employees not to expose them to the population around here who refuse to take Covid-19 and masking seriously. Our local numbers continue to increase by leaps and bounds. Nearly 100,000 diagnosed cases in our state of 4 million and 13,000 in Jefferson county. Our positivity rate (the percentage of tests done that are positive) is running about 15-16%. Public health experts recommend that this be below 5% before societal lockdowns end and we aren’t having much of one at all around here these days which is why our numbers continue to shoot up. I’ll continue to do my part of socially isolating and wearing my mask in public because I want to get back to theater and traveling.

The schools remain in a quandary. First day of school is rapidly approaching and we aren’t in any sort of position to prevent schools from becoming a hotbed of viral spread. Some local districts are remaining virtual, some hybrid, and some are pretending it’s not an issue as most kids don’t get that ill. They seem to have forgotten the adults that work in the schools. The one thing that is likely to get local attention and maybe change the equation around here is the spread of virus among returning college students who are back on campus early for football practice. The country is about a week away from cancelling college football completely for the fall (I fully expect that to happen). When Alabamians can’t worship in the temples of Bryant-Denny and Jordan-Hare this fall, there may finally be some willingness to take the pandemic seriously and change behavior.

August 4, 2020

Social Distancing – High School Style

And he’s back in the salt mines on regular hours and attempting to pick up where he left off a few weeks ago. The first few days back at work are always about emptying inboxes – physical and electronic. I learned long ago that if I’m going to take time off, I need to take a minimum of two weeks. If I only take a week, my colleagues will just let things pile up in a corner for when I get back. At two weeks, they will deal with what they can in my absence so at least the immediate patient need piles aren’t as bad as they might be. Two days in and I’ve pretty much tidied it all away or have a plan to deal with it over the next week or so. The major undone task is putting together some zoom lectures on aging for my usual church sponsored adult enrichment course that will take place the next few weeks. I have all the material so it won’t take that long. I just need to sit down and do it.

And it’s time to dive back into the accidental plague diaries. Alabama continues to be in a surge. The number of Covid inpatients at UAB is roughly double what it was late March – May as the infections that ticked up with the opening up of the state in June turned into serious infections and hospitalizations in July and will turn into a spike in deaths in August, just in time for us to open up the schools. I come from a land where schools didn’t start back until Labor Day, but here in the Deep South, they tend to begin mid-August. From what I can tell, the departments of education in the southern states, like most other governmental entities, rather than grappling with the problems posed by the corona virus, are simply passing the buck further and further down the chain of command and leaving things up to individual school districts. There are a number of school districts in my metropolitan area and they all seem to be completely at sea as to what they should be doing in regards to in person learning, distance learning, after school activities, safety of teachers and staff. Each one seems to be taking a different tack and sailing off a different edge of the earth. New emails come out daily causing parents to be more and more confused and completely unsure about what is actually going to happen as schools gear up over the next few weeks. The largest entity, Jefferson County schools, decided today that they will have no in person classes for the first nine weeks of the semesters. The teachers will report to school and conduct classes remotely. How that’s supposed to work for students without laptops or how a teacher is supposed to effectively teach twenty five kids via Zoom was not explained. Some of the rural Georgia districts started back this week and the first day of school pictures beginning to circulate on social media do not look promising. They show teenagers being teenagers in the halls with no social distancing and only a rare mask. Covid-19 spread in 3…2…1…

I see the country as a whole beginning to have a major surge this fall, far worse than we are seeing now as all those young people mix and mingle and carry each others microbes home. Add to that the fact that high school football programs (a near religion in this part of the world) are going great guns and Friday Night Lights will soon be here and we’re going to have even more issues. I’m not overly worried about the kids. The data suggests that the vast majority will not get seriously ill (although vast majority doesn’t mean all and some previously healthy children and teens will die). I’m much more worried about the teachers and staff who have dedicated their lives to nurturing our young and who are already horribly undervalued. When they have to choose between their calling and their mortality, what will they choose? What happens if a significant portion of the teachers in this country quit because it’s just too dangerous for them to be around crowds of young people? Do we redesign schools to be smaller and less centralized? Do we make more education home dependent? What happens in those families that can only make it economically if all the adults work, sometimes at multiple jobs? Families are likely to start doubling up and becoming more multigenerational in order to have an adult in the home for child rearing and supervision. When that adult is a grandparent or great grandparent, what does that mean in terms of their risk for corona virus infection? I don’t have answers for any of this, but it’s the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.

It fascinates me that the basic attitude of our governmental institutions is towards the pandemic is one of ‘if we pretend it isn’t there, somehow it will go away’. Nature doesn’t work like that viral illness can’t be swayed by op-ed columns or mean tweets, or 30 second campaign commercials. It only obeys the laws of biology, chemistry and physics, but we seem somehow determined to shunt aside the findings of science for feelings or wishful thinking. We can keep doing that, but as long as we keep doing that, things are not going to be ‘normal’. No one is immune to the virus and we don’t know what protects some of us and keeps us from getting ill or what causes some of us to end up for weeks in the ICU despite no previous health history. There are tantalizing clues and the scientists are working overtime, but I’m not sure the politicians are actually listening. My handy dandy corona virus counter says we’re at 4.77 million cases in the US as of this afternoon. That’s 1.45% of the population. It’s likely an undercount as so many young people are asymptomatic. Let’s say we’ve missed half of them so 2.9% of the population has been infected to date. At this point, we are somewhere north of 155,000 deaths. (That’s roughly three Vietnam Wars). If we continue to do a whole lot of nothing to stop the disease and it continues until we reach herd immunity (roughly 80% infection rate), we’re looking at about four and a half million deaths and who knows how many chronically ill or disabled. That’s roughly fifty percent higher than the number of US military casualties in all of the wars and actions we have ever fought over the last two hundred and fifty years. Or the population of the entire San Francisco Bay area if you want something a little less military.

We can’t have normal unless we grow up and do what is required to bring things under control. Have a real lockdown. Develop a testing system that can rapidly identify the infected. Trace those whom the infected have come into contact with. Put the good of society ahead of our own personal convenience. That’s what works. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to have disasters – both major and minor and whole sectors of the economy, those that depend on groups of people being able to get together, just won’t be able to function normally. Most people I know are being pretty good about doing the things we can do as individuals – wear our masks (I’ve got a great source if you want some fashionable ones), wash our hands, don’t get too close, don’t go out if you don’t have to. But that only goes so far. We need those other things as well and I’m pretty sure we won’t get them before next January at the earliest.

I’m a bit of a Debbie Downer tonight and this post seems a bit repetitive of other things I’ve put up. Now that I’ve had my decompress time and am back on usual schedule, I’m willing to do some research and burrow into some more interesting tangents so if anyone wants me to wax rhapsodic on something in the accidental plague diaries, let me know. You can always send me a message if you don’t want to post it publicly.

Maybe I’ll watch Hamilton again…

July 31, 2020

The straight line winds are blowing, the rains are descending and I remain in the same quasi-torpor I’ve been in for the last few days. I’ve kept myself pretty much quarantined in the condo just in case I came into contact with the novel corona virus on the trip to Seattle and back. So far, so good. I feel fine other than a general sense of lassitude and need for daytime napping during my staycation week. I have accomplished a few constructive things. I sorted my whole CD collection and got it stowed, got the laundry done, and made some progress on some writing projects. It’s the little things…

We’re trending upwards by about 1,000 cases a day in the state and 150 cases a day in the county over the last week. We’re not Florida or Texas but we’re nowhere near as large or as populous and we don’t have the same urban density which is why I think we’re relatively protected around here but there’s no end in sight for the upward trends so back into the accidental plague diaries I go. I long to write about something else but until our society develops the political will to do what must be done to bring the pandemic under control, we’re going to be stuck in the current situation. I read somewhere that the US economy contracted by something over 30% last quarter. This compares to 6% with the recession of 2008 and 16% with the Great Depression. There’s a world of hurt still to come.

I was trying to decide what to write about today but everything that came to mind seemed to horribly depressing and I am trying to keep my own personal spirits up after a particularly downbeat couple of days, dominated by the death of two old friends (neither related to Covid-19) and a local scandal involving another old friend, also a geriatrician, who was arrested on salacious charges. This wouldn’t have been much of an issue but when you googled his name, my UAB promotional picture came up so people were sharing the story around social media with my picture attached which was not a particularly good feeling. I’ve pretty much been home so no one has been staring in the street and I have sicced the UAB IT department on the issue.

The big contretemps locally is over the issue of getting the kids back to school. There is a very vocal minority pushing for the schools to open normally in August with full in person instruction. There is a less vocal majority who are concerned about all of the issues that opening up will bring to the fore. Running the schools is not an easy business. There are federal, state, and local mandates regarding instruction and subjects and credit hours. There are negotiations with teachers and employees unions. There are the fixed costs of maintaining the physical plants. There are the special needs children and educational programs. There are the extracurricular activities such as sports and music and theater that are often the only way to maintain older children’s interest in education. I can’t even begin to imagine how you balance all of that in normal times without the stresses of a pandemic, especially in a state like ours which works on a starvation budget at best. One local school district sent out a memo noting that the budget allowed for only one bottle of hand sanitizer and one box of sanitary wipes per classroom to last the entire school year.

There are times when I wish my life had allowed for children of my own, but this is not one of them. I can’t imagine the kinds of decisions that parents and families who rely on public schools are trying to navigate at the moment. The lack of central leadership means that every school district is trying to work it all out for itself. I’m not particularly worried about the children of America. They appear to be resilient and relatively unaffected by Covid-19 but what happens when they start coming home to parents and grandparents and great grandparents? The at risk populations in this country are much more likely to live in multigenerational households, not isolated nuclear family units and I can see another surge in October and November as those people become exposed through school children and sicken. What are we planning to do if children end up orphaned? What happens if the teachers and their unions go on strike due to unsafe working conditions? Is the federal government going to send in their newly constituted riot police to force them into work at gunpoint? (I’m being ridiculous there, but a lot of what I would have considered ridiculous things a few years ago have come to pass recently.)

Vincent Price in the Masque of the Red Death

Large segments of our society still seem to be living in denial that Covid-19 is a serious problem. Yes, the percentage death rate is relatively low when compared to a viral illness like Ebola but it’s still a good deal higher than the flu. (We’re at about five times dead in six months what the flu kills annually). We still don’t know what the long term sequelae of those who recover from serious cases are likely to be. The numbers will keep going up until there is a coordinated federal response of some sort. And yet, the Senate appears incapable of acting due to partisan bickering on a federal level and the executive branch appears to be continuing to try and reenact Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (without remembering how the story ends). I need to see if the Roger Corman/Vincent Price film adaptation is on one of the streaming services. It’s been years since I’ve seen it and it strikes me as being perhaps the best metaphor for our times.

I go back to work on Monday. I’m not looking forward to climbing back in to the pressure cooker, but needs must, especially with two mortgages to pay until someone buys my house. My fashion masks are all washed, I have plenty of hand sanitizer, and, if the rain stops, I’ll spend as much time as I can out of doors.

July 27, 2020

“View of Chattanooga, Tennessee from Lookout Mountain”

And I have returned from the Pacific Northwest back to my own domicile where the weather is hot and sticky, the condo is deliciously cool due to the recent replacement of the HVAC and where I am once again being pretty much ignored by both of my cats. My friend Holly house sat while I was gone, at least in part to get some peace and quiet away from her busy family life – perhaps the cats are disappointed that I am not her. Both Oliver and Anastasia did not even bother to appear for several hours after I came back, and even then it was only to yowl about supper.

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. Family time, naps on the couch, socially distanced visits with old friends followed by another gauntlet of airports and planes in the time of Covid. With the number of flights greatly curtailed, nothing was crowded and I didn’t feel especially endangered as mask usage was consistent throughout the process. But one never knows, does one. The only minor issue was finding, on arriving back in Atlanta, that I had somehow left the rear driver’s side window down all week and it had rained so I had to swamp out the back seat before exiting the economy parking lot. There was nothing of value in the car so it wasn’t a major issue but I have no idea how I managed to do that. I suppose it was better than the time Steve and I went off for a three day weekend leaving the oven on…

I decided not to make a beeline home. I was tired so I spent the night in Atlanta in yet another one of those ubiquitous Hampton Inns. (I now have something north of 600,000 Hilton Points and, of course, nowhere to go to spend them). The next day, rather than making the usual beeline down I-20, I decided to take a more leisurely and scenic route up through Chattanooga. Now I have driven through Chattanooga about 100 times over the last couple of decades but I’ve never stopped. As it was a sunny day, I decided to take the drive up Lookout Mountain for the view. Most things were closed or full of unmasked tourists so I did not see Rock City or visit Ruby Falls, but I did have a nice masked and socially distanced walk among the lovely houses on top of the mountain looking out over the Tennessee river valley spread below. After that, I came on home.

Back to the accidental plague diaries: In the nine days I’ve been away, the number of Covid-19 cases in the county is up about 2,000, the number in the state is up about 13,000, and the number nationally is up about a half million. It took several months to generate those numbers at the start of the pandemic, now it’s taking just over a week and, with continued uncontrolled spread, it will start speeding up more and more as that’s what exponential numbers do. Now that it has become so firmly entrenched in more conservative states, the administration appears to finally be waking up to the very real public health concerns but their track record to date at putting politics and ideology before good public health practices doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that we’ll be making headway soon.

What’s most irksome about all of this is how absolutely unnecessary this all is. Even at this late date, the pandemic could be controlled and well on its way to eradication in four to six weeks. It would be painful and politically difficult but could be done. We are the richest society this planet has ever produced. We can do or have anything pretty much as long as we align our political and economic systems to make it so. What would we need to do? First, a real lockdown of at least a month. We haven’t had one other than some jurisdictions in the Northeast and the SF Bay area. It would have to be nationwide, no exceptions, everybody home, no travel other than trade goods, no one on the street or gathering anywhere for any reasons and that would have to be enforced. Second, use of that time to make and distribute accurate point of service testing so that as people coming out of lockdown can be tested and we can gather an understanding of where the virus is being transmitted in real time. Third, contact tracing of carriers with enforced quarantines until the transmission chains are broken. Of course, to do this, the government would have to take on the economic calamities that will resort from more lockdowns and we haven’t been the best at that so far, especially when compared with the rest of the developed world. But that’s why the rest of the world is beginning to open up and we’re in a continued upward trajectory.

I can’t help but wonder if my little jaunt to Seattle, which I felt was absolutely necessary for both my mental health and my family, wasn’t in its own way contributing to the problem. I’m pretty good at my masks and social distancing (although the staff at my father’s senior living facility was miffed when we removed our masks on the patio of his building to drink our coffee, even though we were outdoors and a good ten feet apart). But that’s me, always over thinking and taking on more weltschmerz than I really need to. I have a full week before I go back to work, so I’m spending it pretty much in self imposed quarantine in my condo to make sure I didn’t pick it up on the trip. So here I am, puttering around with a list of little projects to keep me busy this week.

If I do go out, you all know the litany.

Wear your mask,

Take your sanitizer with you,

Keep your hands washed…

July 22, 2020

Statues covered with face masks in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, April 26, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

As promised yesterday, time to head back into the Accidental Plague Diaries. Here, in Seattle, the first US epicenter back in those distant days of this past February, the population saw how quickly and silently Covid-19 can spread and they take the potential dangers seriously. In my wanderings around town, I’ve seen excellent adherence to masking and social distancing by the general population and, from what I can tell from the data available to me, transmission in Seattle proper is way down. The rest of the state… not quite so good. I assume that’s a combination of rural population politics combined with substandard living conditions for agricultural workers on the other side of the Cascades.

The question I keep getting asked by family and friends is some variant on what’s coming next or what is the new normal going to look like. Now, I have no degree in futurology or futurism or future studies or whatever it may be called (I’m not sure if there’s even a higher education program in such things outside of one of the more obscure for profit colleges where they send you a PDF file diploma in exchange for a tuition check). So you’ll have to bear with me as I attempt to answer this. I may be right, I may be hopelessly wrong but it’s what I see from where I stand in mid-July of this benighted year. I’m not going to go into everything that I see trending, but will stick within those areas where I have a certain amount of expertise.

Healthcare: The healthcare system was going to enter a system of intense strain in about a decade, even without the presence of pandemic illness due to the demographics of American society. The aging of the boom, its wish to remain forever young, and its demands that the health system provide quick fixes to the complex issues of aging were going to tax the system and that process has just been sped up considerably and shown where the cracks are about a decade ahead of schedule. Some things that I think are here to stay: more and more primary care will be moved away from office visits to virtual visits, especially for the management of chronic illness. People will get one or two appointments a year in the office and others will be on-line, checking through a list of potential issues, looking for problems. More and more of these routine visits will also be devolved from physicians to Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants. Access to specialty care is likely to move back towards a more gatekeeper mechanism requiring referrals and more workup through primary care before a specialty appointment can be kept as the system continues to try and limit face to face contacts for the protection of both patients and health care providers. There will also likely be more rapid development of house call programs, home health will expand its service lines, and the home hospital model is likely to gain additional interest in an attempt to keep ill people who can be handled in a situation other than the hospital setting out of a place where the sick congregate and they are more likely to become infected. Hospitals will continue to work to separate out Covid services physically from other parts of hospital care leading to something akin to the old TB pavilions and sanitariums of a century ago.

Aging: There is going to be more and more push for housing appropriate for multi-generational families as older people will be more and more loathe to enter senior communities where they may be cut off from interacting with their grand children and great grandchildren. As more people work from home, there will be other adults in the home to assist an elder and I think we’ll continue to see the collapse of the nuclear family as an ideal for the extended family. Elders are also going to want to be more connected to community and looking for senior housing integrated into urban areas rather than separated in suburban areas where they are trapped if they cannot drive. Older people, understanding their vulnerabilities, are going to be among the last to return to full social interactions which is going to have a huge impact on such things as audiences for performing arts events and dining patterns. There’s going to be a huge demand for services that can clean and disinfect in various ways so that they feel more secure in their environments.

Fashion: I am not Miranda Priestly and I have no training in this, but I know enough about the history of costume to know that historical events are reflected in clothing trends. As more and more work is decentralized and more and more jobs are done at home, there is going to be a decline in formal business apparel for clothes that will look smart and professional, but will also be comfortable and appropriate for other household tasks. I think the necktie will likely disappear as it’s a vector for disease transmission (they aren’t washed enough). As more clothes are bought online, they will be designed and cut to fit relatively well for various body types to minimize returns.

Real estate: As there will be fewer opportunities to socialize, people are going to want to know their neighbors more and socialize on the street. Older neighborhoods which were designed for that with sidewalks and front porches, will become more desirable and newer neighborhoods designed strictly around the automobile less so. There is also likely to be a renewed interest in living in central cities versus far flung suburbs. Commercial real estate is going to be in trouble as more and more businesses realize they can work perfectly efficiently without so much office space. There will be far fewer commuters and businesses that rely on heavy commute traffic will suffer.

Performing Arts: I think there will be a decentralization of music-theater away from NYC and other cultural capitals and an increased recognition that good art doesn’t depend on the imprimatur of particular critics or branding. Smaller, more facile companies that are willing to take radical steps to envision new ways of bringing content to a public starved for entertainment will do better than large, overhead heavy traditional companies that really only know one way of doing things. Ultimately, I think we’re going to get some exceptional artistic works from this period from creatives who use all of this societal uncertainty to springboard to something new. It’s always worked that way. The financial structures underpinning the arts in this country are in trouble (and have been for years) so we’re going to have to decide as a society what we want to do about that.

It’s going to change. Be prepared. Change is neither right or wrong, it just is. It’s what allows us to move forward a society to something better. It’s scary and painful and no one likes to give up the familiar – inertia is a powerful force – but ultimately the choice is to either grab hold of it and go along for the ride or resist it and let it grind you into the past. I’m doing my best to do the former, although I find it as difficult as everyone else does. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do the three basic things that we can all do to curb the pandemic.

Wear a mask.

Keep my distance.

Wash my hands.

July 21, 2020

The Saunders Clan heading out to the low tide line

Dateline – Seattle, Washington:We interrupt the accidental plague diaries for an afternoon of travel journaling. Believe me, I would much rather be writing about new and interesting places or people, the rehearsal process for a new show or any of the hundred and one things I would write about in these columns pre-coronavirus. But, as someone much brighter than I once said, write what you know and modern life over the last four months has been pretty much a lurch from one uncertainty to another due to the advance of Covid-19 and, being a physician who is still gainfully employed, it’s impact on myself as an individual, the collective of my friends, family and society, and the world at large became something I could help clarify to others as I attempted to work it all out for myself.

Anyway, I am enjoying my first time off in many months and a trip to be with the family in Seattle. I’m not making my usual rounds as I’m trying to adhere to social distancing, mask use, and all those other little rules of the moment. I have no particular wish to be part of one of those human interest stories that read something like ‘Fourteen family members sickened after welcome home feast’. I’ve been welcomed into my brother’s immediate family bubble, but with everyone else, it’s been distance and masks. Fortunately the weather has been lovely so we have been able to gather outside for the most part. I’ve met friends and family for walks on the beach, glasses of wine in lawn chairs in the yard, coffee on terraces and while it’s a little awkward as everyone tries to determine correct etiquette, even among those who have known each other for forty or fifty years, it all works out in the end.

Today was a bit melancholy, the entire American branch of the Saunders clan gathered at my uncle’s house at Magnolia bluff to bid formal goodbye to my mother. As you may recall, my mother died rather unexpectedly in late January. She had had a serious genetic dementia for some years and was non-communicative and unable to function the last few years of her life. She just didn’t wake up one morning. We wonder if possibly she may have been an early Covid-19 victim as she had had a bit of a cough the week before her death and the disease was spreading silently in the Seattle area at the time. No one thought to look for it then so there is no way of knowing. We had planned a memorial for her in early April here in Seattle, but that was cancelled by the spreading pandemic, so we decided to have a private family gathering to scatter her ashes at the same place as her sister.

The house on Magnolia Bluff

When my uncle’s parents died in the 1960s, he took the money he inherited from the sale of their house and bought an undeveloped lot at the base of Magnolia bluff on Puget Sound. Just off shore from the lot was a boulder sitting on the sea bed, a glacial erratic placed there at the end of the last ice age by the retreating glaciers that carved the Sound and its landscape. It may have an official name, but my generation, children at the time, dubbed it Turtle Rock due to it’s resemblance to the shell of a turtle breaking the surface of the waters at high tide. Not much happened at the Turtle Rock property for 25 years or so other than scrambling down the bluff for beach walks or blackberrying in the summer.

Turtle Rock and Magnolia Bluff

Around 1990, my aunt and uncle built a house on the property. It took some doing as the city had forgotten there was an undeveloped lot still on that road and the permitting process was a bit of a chore. He is an expert on Japanese culture and policy and she was an artist with an interest in Asian art forms and the house they built took both Japanese and Northwest design elements and has become quite the gathering place for the clan over time. My aunt died of breast cancer in 2012 and, after her cremation, was scattered at Turtle Rock at the July low tide that summer. We took my mother to join her this morning, eight years to the day later. The group consisting of myself, my uncle, my brother and his family, my sister and her SO, and my two cousins and families who are in town, made our way down the bluff to the tide flats, went wading past the herons, the geoducks, the moon snails, and a mildly curious bald eagle, armed with the ashes, flowers, and a few words of remembrance. It was quite nice. I think she would approve. My father was not up to the climb up and down the hill so watched from the balcony. I haven’t made any specific requests regarding my remains when I die other than cremation. I shan’t be around to either approve or disapprove but I won’t be upset if I end up at Turtle Rock as well.

Saying goodbye

Talking with various cousins, I kept getting the same question. What do you think comes next. So that will be the subject of the next edition of the Accidental Plague Diaries. Stay tuned to this space for my thoughts on that.

July 19, 2020

Travel in the age of Covid-19

I’m sitting on the living room couch at my brother’s house, a couple of tuckered out dogs napping at my feet listening to him practice some sort of stadium rock riffs on his electric guitar. It’s nice to be around some family after months and months of social distancing and more evenings and weekends alone than I care to contemplate. Time once again to pick up the laptop, let the fingers race over the keys vomiting out whatever words are built up in my brain and put forward another entry in the Accidental Plague Diaries. I suppose this one should be about the challenges of long distance travel in this Covid-19 era. I do all my air travel on Delta these days due to my location in the Southeast and my researches into the responses of airlines to the needs of the corona virus era suggested to me that there was no real need to change that as their protocols were about as good as you could get given the configurations of airplanes and airports. As, in some ways, I was more concerned about time in airports than the plane itself, I decided to drive over to Atlanta on Friday night and spend the night in an airport area hotel, ensuring myself minimal airport time and no need to make a plane change at one of the hubs. I have all my points through Hilton properties and Hampton Inn has been my go to for years. I took advantage of the on line check in and check out through my phone app together with downloading a digital key so I didn’t have to linger in a lobby. The room was clean, I wiped off surfaces before I touched them and hope for the best.

The next morning, drive through Starbucks, park at the Atlanta airport in the economy lot, and mask in place, enter the terminal. I am pleased to say that no matter what the idiot governor of Georgia may be up to, masking at the airport was universal with the exception of people eating in the food court. (I did not stop). The airport was nowhere near as busy as usual so maintaining distance was not difficult, and I was able to get my bottle of Purell through security without a fuss so sanitize after ever new activity wasn’t an issue. The plane was about 60% full. Middle seats weren’t sold except to family groups traveling together, people stayed masked and there was minimal traffic in the aisles. I wedged myself in my seat per usual, put on a movie, promptly fell asleep, and woke up somewhere over Nebraska in time for a bottle of water, some cheez-its and some cookies in a baggie which was all the food and beverage service. More movies, which did not put me to sleep this time, and a lovely view of Mount Rainier as we flew past and I was descending into Sea-Tac airport. Again, universal masking, a quick trip through baggage claim and off to meet my brother who was picking me up.

My biggest take away from the whole experience is how we have to do a whole new set of risk benefit calculations with everyday activity that we just aren’t used to and for which we are operating off of imperfect data. We’ve all been very used to doing this around life since we were children. Busy street? Wait for the light and the corner or, as there’s no one coming, jaywalk to cut a couple minutes off of time. Dark underpass at a late hour? Not a problem – I’m with three friends. We don’t even think much about those calculations, especially if we’re white males. We’ve been acculturated to them over decades of life experience and we don’t even think about them most of the time. Now we have a whole new set of risks to think about in a pandemic world and little conventional wisdom on which to fall back. Am I far enough away from that person in this elevator? Is the need for my being able to interact with my family worth the risk of this plane flight? Can I hold it long enough not to need to use this public restroom? We’ll get better at making these calculations with time and additional data points.

The same thing is going on at a macro level with society. Is the need to educate and socialize our children worth the risk of opening up public schools in the usual model? Can we accomplish the same sorts of business or academic productivity without commuting into offices daily? Is it safe to stand in line with strangers? Is it safe to go indoors with them in large groups? If not now, when? What needs to happen to restore public confidence in these sorts of activities? The criminal neglect of these basic questions evidenced by the lack of interest by current federal and state administrations is why we remain mired in a sort of stasis. We’re holding at a crossroads: either we allow the virus to spread unchecked and accept the consequences in excess mortality and morbidity (although what that latter is remains pretty much unknown) or we get serious about bringing it under control in the way most of the rest of the world has done. To do that, we will need a real lockdown – no travel, no leaving your domicile other than medial emergency or a once a week run for groceries monitored by the authorities, an enforced curfew and quarantine, and prohibition of gatherings, mandatory masking, a robust testing system, and contact tracing until we can thoroughly identify and isolate carriers. It’s going to be a politically hard sell but that’s what works. I didn’t make the rules. It’s just how viral pandemics work and how you can beat them. I’m afraid we’re going to be stuck in stasis until we make up our societal minds about which way we really want to go. Neither choice is pleasant. The virus doesn’t care.

In the meantime, wash your hands, wear your mask, maintain social distancing (which I am doing as much as I can, even with members of my family).

July 15, 2020

Ask and ye shall receive – Kim Kardashian is selling face masks…

I got a text from an old friend a couple of days ago. She’s a nurse anaesthetist in Houston these days. In it she said that her 290 bed hospital is completely full. 160 of the patients are Covid patients. Every single ICU bed has a Covid patient in it. It was 10 AM and she had already been called to six Code Blue situations and she was frazzled and exhausted. And that’s just the beginning of the surge in Houston area hospitals. There’s a very predictable pattern happening in hot spots. Cases begin to rise with higher percentages of positive tests. About three weeks later, hospitals begin to fill up. Three weeks after that, the deaths begin to skyrocket. The end of July and beginning of August are going to be brutal for Texas, Arizona, Florida, and the other states following their general curves.

Numbers are arcing up in Alabama as well. As we don’t have the large dense urban centers, our absolute numbers are far fewer but the trends are the same. UAB hospital now has over 100 Covid inpatients (we were at about sixty a month ago). The other hospitals in town are also seeing a rise. It’s seeping into the long term care facilities and senior communities and starting to spread among those vulnerable populations. Our governor, never one to rock the boat, or even to be visible the majority of the time, emerged today for a press conference and announced a mandatory statewide mask order. I suppose it’s better late than never but it would have been helpful before the numbers really started to spike. Of course this has led to the inevitable backlash among those who have been conditioned by certain media outlets to regard anything that impinges on their sense of entitlement as a threat. I wonder what a future generation is going to make of the great mask wars of the summer of 2020. Perhaps we need to enlist the help of the Kardashians running a PR campaign to make masks the must have fashion accessory of the season.

You can try to get past the Walmart bouncer without a mask, but I don’t think you’ll succeed…

The longer a significant portion of the population refuses to believe in Covid and its dangers and flouts good public health policy, the longer we’re all going to have to put up with it. Every time I see some grinning idiot wandering into a store or take out counter without one, I kind of want to hit them up the side of the head and say ‘You, yes you are the reason I can’t take my planned trip out of the country this fall or go to a rehearsal or performance or be with my friends’. Then I think better of it as I’m getting to the age where if I get knocked down by a neanderthal, I could break a hip. It’s not that we haven’t know for well over a century how to cope with a pandemic. It’s really quite simple. Determine who is sick or a carrier (testing), and break chains of transmission (masking, quarantine, and contact tracing). It’s really that simple. But for a disease that spreads rapidly and for which the whole country is at risk due to lack of immunity. large scale public health programs need to be put in place. It requires a full core press federal response so that appropriate resources can be called up and put into place. Unfortunately, decades of starving public health programs as unimportant, political marginalization of science and expertise, and leadership at the very top that is completely disinterested in anything other than corporate profit have made this essentially impossible and I really don’t see much progress prior to this next spring and even that is likely to depend on the political winds.

I sent the collected accidental plague diaries to the editor I’ve been working with to determine if I’m actually writing a book with these pieces. It’s about 50,000 words now since I published the first one in early March. He thinks that it actually dovetails with my original thought for a book about the stresses that were going to be brought to bear on the health system by the aging of the Baby Boom. Covid is just hyper accelerating those processes in some unusual ways. I was expecting the cracks and problems to begin showing in the late 2020s and really becoming a serious issue in the 2030s. Looks like I missed the mark by a decade. I’m still not sure how to put all this randomness together in a coherent whole but I liked what he had to say so I’m going to ruminate on it a couple of weeks. If I get the pieces in order in my mind, then I should be able to write fairly quickly and might have something by next year. Got to use all those non-rehearsal hours for something other than perfecting my Civilization VI game.

I am taking my first journey since Covid his this weekend when I head to Seattle to see my family. It’s my first time off and the first time I will have been able to see them since last November. Those of you in the greater Seattle area, if you want to get together for walks around Greenlake or the Arboretum or along the Burke-Gilman Trail, let me know. Most of the things I usually do in when I’m up that way just aren’t a good idea at the moment due to infection control principles. I’ll be staying at my brother’s house in Wedgwood. I have no real agenda other than family time – probably a number of very long naps as the grind of work in this era has been getting to me. I’m not looking forward to flying in the age of Covid but it was either that or nine days of driving round trip. Watch this space for my impressions. Believe me, I much prefer to write travel diaries than plague diaries.

Keep those hands washed and sanitized.

Wear your mask when out and about.

Stay home as much as you can.