Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Coronavirus: The mismanaged pandemic is triggering an avalanche

David Leonhardt, who writes The Morning newsletter for the New York Times, addressed the issue of pundit accountability by evaluating various conclusions he'd reached about American politics.  I was grateful to read this, as I have been evaluating my own thinking about the pandemic, shifting from a model of managed retreat to one of cascading disasters. 

At the beginning of all this, I thought of  "managed retreat" as a several-month process of "flattening the curve" then re-emerging having limited death and illness, preserved much of what we had and ready to rebuild. 

Instead of giving the novel coronavirus a one-two punch, our society was ambivalent about both managing and retreating.  As a result, we've triggered an avalanche of social disintegration. We've lost a massive number of jobs, businesses, gathering places, and social supports that could be rebuilt with a Marshall plan, but how would we get through Congress?

As a physician, I must say that it has been torture (I mean that pretty literally) to watch the way the pandemic has been mismanaged.  I have had to change my mind: it's not a months-long process from which we will bounce back, but a years -- maybe decades -- long catastrophe that will cause profound suffering that will only end when people rise up in disgust and say "enough."




Thursday, December 3, 2020

Coronavirus: "Operation Christmas Drop" -- The Must-See, Feel-Better Christmas Movie

We are being whipped into the Christmas frenzy by a combination of capitalist marketing devices and our profound cultural traditions. And part of the tradition is that we gather -- "I'll be HOME for Christmas" is not apocryphal.  

Of course, this Coronavirus Christmas we are being urged in the strongest possible terms to stay home, or as Samuel L. Jackson put it, "Stay the F**K at home."  

These two HOME messages are actually contradictory so all of the people who observe Christmas are in a bind.  

Happily, Netflix has a must-see holiday movie which helps us with this: the film explains that "old traditions are great, but it's fun to make new ones."  

I took this to heart today when I was at the garden store where I get my Christmas tree every year.  It helped me have new ideas about what to do.  Specifically, it helped me think about an outdoor Christmas -- they had wood for my fire pit, and trees that seem perfectly happy to be outside.  I remembered, back in the old days, when my mother and I would string cranberries and popcorn, which perhaps the birds would like.  (I don't know if this is actually OK, but I'm going to check with the Audubon society).  

It will be a new tradition -- gathering outside and enjoying our "outside" tree.  Thanks, Operation Christmas Drop, for the inspiration!  And wait -- it's a true story! or at least "based on a true thing that has gone on every year since 1952." 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Coronavirus: The (unforgiving) Thanksgiving spike in New Jersey

I called Dr. Deborah Goldson's office today to get an appointment and was told all appointments are now virtual because the virus is spiking.  I looked this up and was shocked. 


On July 17th, there were 50 cases. On November 17th, as we call see, there were 4.026. That qualifies as a spike in anybody's book. Couple that with a growing number of infections among my friends, and I would say that the virus is creeping along, relentlessly and inexorably.  

Dr. Goldson gave me sound advice at the beginning of the pandemic, basically to stay home. Don't go food shopping, don't go anywhere. Samuel L. Jackson had that the same advice -- with stronger wording -- in this video (rated: MA, strong language). This hits just as we turn the corner to Thanksgiving, which, even as a reduced gathering, means we would want to go out to the supermarket, etc. I've been going to various doctor visits, thinking I was ahead of the spike, but clearly I was just not keeping a close eye on the pattern. 

What are we to do? 

NYC says: Always keep in mind the “Core Four” actions to prevent COVID-19 transmission: 
Stay home if sick: Monitor your health and stay home if you are sick except for getting essential medical care (including COVID-19 testing) and other essential needs. 
Practice physical distancing: Stay at least 6 feet away from people who are not members of your household. 
Wear a face covering: Protect those around you. Wearing a face covering helps reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially if you are sick and don’t have symptoms. For more information about face coverings, visit nyc.gov/health/coronavirus and look for "FAQ About Face Coverings." 
Practice healthy hand hygiene: Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available; clean frequently touched surfaces regularly; avoid touching your face with unwashed hands; and cover your cough or sneeze with your arm, not your hands.

I make it the Core Five, and add:

  • Follow Dr. Goldson's advice. I'll pass it along to you here.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Reading Fairy Tales for Solace

I signed up to read fairy tales for solace.

Or so I thought.

I love that expression -- "or so I thought."

A Public Space, which is a journal+adventures in writing, is hosting reading groups, and at this time #apstogether is reading Grimm's fairy tales. I should know from my psychoanalyst teachers that fairy tales are about deep stuff, like mutilation and abandonment and being devoured. But I got the book and started to read, thinking oh joy, Cinderalla, in a Disney-esque spirit. Escapism, you might say.

But of course that's not it at all. The stark brutality is sometimes met with a solution, but sometimes not. Then we have to live with it. In a tale for grown ups that I read last night, a girl was cut off from her only supporter, who thought she had betrayed him. The multiple levels of loss and trauma make each other ring, like hitting the right note on the G string so that the cello's C string vibrates in resonance. 

What use is that? Why do we read such stories?

I think the resonance is the recognition, the similarity, the "oh I know about that." 

I saw the headlines in the paper -- immigrant children being deported to Mexico, even if that's not where they're from, zombie oil wells in Canada that threaten the earth, the God knows how many-th storm forming in the Caribbean. 

Now why that should be comforting is anyone's guess. But perhaps as the poet Michael Lally always reminds me, "There is surely a time in history when things were also terribly difficult, yet people made it through." He would also say that we carry the memories of those bad times in our DNA, which is perhaps why the tales make us tingle. And we must also carry the DNA of survival, which is why we keep reading. Don't quit before the miracle happens, because God makes a way where there is no way: we know this, too.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Coronavirus: Not over yet?

I really hit a wall this month, as the curve of infection inched up in the third wave and the weather turned cold. My summer adventures in the out-of-doors had been delightful and the idea of shelter-in-place-by-myself AGAIN was painful. I complained bitterly to everyone, and listened as they complained bitterly back to me. I've stopped thinking of Trump as idiocy and started thinking of it as domestic violence against all of us, trapping us in a very bad experience of the pandemic. When conservative organizations like the New England Journal of Medicine denounce the handing of the situation, you know we're in deep trouble. And of course climate change is hovering over us, Thomas Friedman says we can expect big changes in how we work -- which likely means lower salaries -- and surely there's more. In the midst of all this angst, I backslid on my daily self-improvement routines of exercise, cello practice, homemade bread and green leafy vegetables.  I wanted cake and TV period. End of discussion. The fears of the spring were no longer motivators. I was in a slump.

This is the point at which my beloved friend Pam Shaw, were she with us, would say, "Time to put on your big girl pants." She might say it sweetly, as in "You are so loved!" (from some encouraging message site) or superhero-style, as in "You are a bodacious woman warrior and you can do this!" but she would surely draw a line on my self-pity. She was a stern but wonderful cheer-er-upper and I miss her terribly.

Left to my own devices, I reorganized my house and took my friends/family's suggestion to get an outdoor grill and fire pit to extend the outside season into the cold days. I am going to get a new sofa and a new very warm coat for these forays to the outside. I also got poles for pole walking, per the advice of the Washington Post, and recruited a friend to try it with me. This is all good.

In light of those accomplishments, I said to myself, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!" OK, great metaphor, and I know what the lemons are but what is "lemonade"? Thinking about Pam, "lemonade" might be just the willingness to say, "This is a shitty day (shitty period), but 'I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.'" 

I threw in the Frost because it seemed to fit. I could have quoted Emerson -- 'when duty whispers low, "Thou must," the youth replies "I can" or Thomas Paine --

“THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

These great writers urge fortitude in the trying times, self-sacrifice for the larger good. While it seems as if my huddling in my house is nothing like the suffering of George Washington's battered army in 1776 as they fled across New Jersey, their ill-shod feet bleeding into the snow, I am supposed to do this thing, this shelter-in-place, it is my contribution to the cause, not to get sick myself. I can be cheerful so that I don't burden others. In fact, I can invite them over and feed them from my outdoor grill, cooking in my incredibly warm new coat (which I didn't actually get yet, but you follow the storyline here). I can use my time to learn from this "apocalypse," understood to mean "pulling back the veil" between reality and me.

And what I glimpse behind the veil is that a shift as large as the American Revolution or the Civil War is ahead -- as we make a necessary transformation from our rape-and-pillage-the-earth economy to a just-and-sustainable one. It doesn't have a name yet, this new system, but I think one will emerge soon. And we will see that that transition will demand all the fortitude and winter solidering we can muster. In the future, when we look back, we might think of this as the "Summer" of the Revolution. We are all Sarah Connor at the end of Terminator, knowing that hard times are coming, and this is the moment to prepare.  

I think that is the bittersweet lemonade we are called to make in this moment.   



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Voted!

I voted today. In New Jersey, all voting is by mail-in ballot. The ballot can go in the mail, in a county-sponsored dropbox, or one can take it to the polls. The many texts and emails asking me about my "voting plan" made me reflect on which of these I thought best.  I decided to go to the county dropbox.  

With my plan in place, I turned to the ballot. It took quite a bit of work to learn about the candidates and the public questions. Then it took work to fill out the ballot, put it in the envelope, sign the form BUT NOT DETACH IT, and put all that in another envelope, find a convenient drop off place in my county and go there. Not as easy as strolling around the corner to Hazel Avenue School and pulling levers. 

When I got to the drop-off spot, however, I was really really enchanted. I loved that the ballot box was under the gazebo across from the fire station in South Orange and daily decorated. There was a certain joy and dignity to it that shouted, "Ain't democracy great?" It seemed very official and very inviting to me. I think others thought so too as there was a steady stream of people arriving to vote. 

Here's a photo of me, all masked, putting my ballot in the box.  And then a photo of the voter after me -- you can see how attractively the gazebo is decorated.




Thursday, October 1, 2020

Ripped up, robbed and relocated! How urban renewal is PEOPLE REMOVAL

Last night, Doug Farrand sent an alarming email to our University of Orange Urbanism Team.  It contained a link to a news story about the City of Orange Township's plan for urban renewal on Main Street, replacing the old Y, where I achieved junior and senior life guard status, and Rossi's Paint Store with an 400-unit apartment complex. I lived through the decades of urban renewal which tore apart Newark, East Orange and other cities in the 1950s and 60s. And I have had the opportunity to study urban renewal in major US cities. Bottom line: urban renewal promised riches for cities and delivered chaos. The people in the path of bulldozers were "ripped up, robbed and relocated" as my brother, the songwriter Joshua Thompson, put it while I was working on a subtitle for my book Root Shock: -- eventually subtitled: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It

Urban renewal causes horrific harm all the way around, yet planners and developers told me "you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet." I gathered that by that they meant they'd break the "eggs" of the community to make an "omelet" of wealth for themselves. But people do not take well to having their "shells" broken. Urban renewal was, I learned, a prescription for death of those who were carelessly pushed aside. You can see the award-winning video Sara Booth made about urban renewal -- Urban Renewal is People Removal -- and I'm happy to send you a free DVD. 

The official horrible US urban renewal program was shut down in 1973, but the laws that enabled it linger on the books. The leaders of Orange, NJ, are licking their chops at the money they could rake in by tearing down the historic buildings of Main Street and replacing them with 5-10 story "market rate" apartments. This means that the apartments will rent for upwards of $1500 a month and be geared toward people who would take the train to work in New York City (but will anyone do that in the future?). The incursion of these apartments will trigger an avalanche of gentrification, pushing the minority and immigrant communities living to the south and north of Main Street out of the city. Their needs are not considered in the planning process. Orange "has enough" low income people, or so they say, or maybe too many, so this "push out" is justified in the eyes of the decision-makers.

This article kept me up all night. You might ask, "Why did you check your email at 10PM?" And you might ask, "Why were you surprised, you wrote about this in your book, Main Street?" Both good questions. It's not that I'm surprised, it's that I'm physician and it is extremely upsetting to me that we have failed to learn that urban renewal=death.  It is what Edgar Rivera Colon has described as hell. While I was awake and in that hell, I imagined writing a pamphlet called "Death by Renovation." 

Morning brings good counsel. My UofO colleagues suggested that I write this blog post instead, and having explained the horrors of what's being planned, shift to our proposal: an urbanism that centers life. What could be a better urbanism for Orange, NJ? It is a city full of life. On Saturday, I was at an event to promote completing the census, registering to vote and wearing masks to prevent Covid-19 infection. During the event, young dancers from Concepts in Choreography demonstrated their considerable skill in a genre my granddaughter explained is known as Jersey House. In the parking lot of the building next door, a Guatemalan folkloric dance was taking place with gorgeous costumes and drumming. The issue in Orange is to take the talent to Main Street, let people come visit us and see the amazing accomplishments of the people. We can nurture these accomplishments and get all the money we need or could imagine, while extending life! That is what urbanism that centers life can do!  


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Coronavirus: The Equinox

Tuesday, September 22, 2020, was the fall equinox. On that day, headlines announced that 200,000 people had died from Covid-19 in the US. This occurred on the heels of the September 18th death of jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which was a loss of a great woman but also the precipitant for national crisis about the vacant Supreme Court seat. No question but President Donald Trump would rush through a conservative judge to create a long-lasting conservative majority on the court. Loss and dread left me, for one, very depressed. It did not feel like equal amounts of light and dark. 

In the week since the equinox, I've struggle out of that emotional hole. It was a miraculous community event that brought the sun. The HUUB, at First UU in Orange, hosted an event to promote the census. Young dancers from Concepts in Choreography, who sometimes practice in our parking lot, came by and started to dance to Jersey club. At about the same time, the Guatemalan community next door started its folkloric festival with dancers in fabulous costumes. There was a fence in between the two -- Charlie Wirene, managing director of the HUUB, made me day when he said, "We just have to take out a fence pole and open it up." 

Since then, openings have piled up. Something about this hour which is calling community together. A moving piece in the New York Times made that point about a community in Oregon devastated by Covid-19 and then by wildfire. Despite the terrible losses, the community was pulling together. Restaurants, for example, were planning how to provide meals for months for those in need.  As one teenager said, 

“You just really see your community light up for you,” said Estefania Ortiz, 17, a high school senior who is Ms. Alexia’s cousin. “I keep telling my teachers — it’s a small community with a big heart.”

The equinox showed me the troubles of the world.  But there is more: there are fenceposts we might remove so that we can pull together to get through this.  

Friday, September 18, 2020

Kiss me, I'm Scottish???!!!!!

Ancestry.com wrote to say that they had updated the results of my DNA tests and they had new information to share with me.  I went to the website and was shocked to see that I was no longer part Irish, but rather 26% Scottish.  I have been part Irish all my life, as well as part Native American.  The first go-round Ancestry said that, no, I had no Native American DNA per their results.  Shocking.  But this time I'm no longer Irish -- I'm Scottish?????!!!!.  As my daughter Molly and niece Jaden had also learned about being part Scottish, we spent some time exploring our heritage, at least the obvious parts: Mel Gibson as William Wallace, Sean Connery as Sean Connery, Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser and nameless attractive people in handsome plaids.  More will be revealed.  Time to work on my shortbread.

Friday, September 11, 2020

9.11.2001: 19 Years Later

I was on a panel today with architect/planner Mark Barksdale, who opened his remarks by recounting his experience of looking at the hole in the side of the Tower, knowing from his training that the building would collapse, and being helpless to stop it. He felt sick when he heard that people had been told to shelter in place rather than flee. His vivid image of the wounded Tower made me think of the many wounds to the social fabric of our nation. I often wonder these days if our society will collapse, and so do many other people. 

I was heartened by listening to Reverend William Barber II. Toby Horn, a college classmate, sent me a link to a Facebook Live event, Rev. Barber II chatting by phone with Andy Shallal of Washington, DC's Busboys and Poets Bookstore. Rev. Barber said to Andy, "We must vote this November. We must have people in office who will fight for the poor, the low-wealth and all who are oppressed and marginalized. And after we vote, we will insist that they do the right thing. Forward together, not one step back." This possibility filled me with joy.

And I also took heart from the University of Orange weekly newsletter, which told the story of NYC RECOVERS, a project my colleagues and I started after 9.11. Reading about the project reminded me of all we learned in tending to the social and emotional recovery of New York City, and most particularly the tasks of groups, which we named: Remember, Respect, Learn and Connect. 

Life is, after all, a conversation with the world in which we try to name the problems, try to remember when we've faced them before and then try to remember what worked. We can get lost in this process, and that's what friends are for. One of my friends, Doug Farrand, has spent the past five months reminding me that, back in March, I said we needed to turn on the love to get through this moment. His repetition of my advice is slowly sinking in.  This photo of a rock in Highbridge Park, which was the last slide I showed on the panel, captures this sentiment. Remember, Respect, Learn and Connect -- and TURN ON THE LOVE.  




Wednesday, September 9, 2020

What I have to say about Main Streets

Yesterday I got to celebrate the publication of my new book, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All.  It was a great party, aptly outlined by architect/artist Carol Hsuing, who designed the book's cover.  


I loved that Andy Merrifield, who wrote the foreword, called in from Cambridge, England, Michel Cantal-Dupart, to whom the book is dedicated, called in from Paris, and Hirofumi Minami, who invented the stroll-and-scroll method I used, got up early in the morning to call in from Japan.  

So many great friends and colleagues showed up -- as I noticed 121 people were in the Zoom at one point, I can't even begin to name them all!  

And we had extraordinary moments, like listening to Winston Nelson play a Bach arrangement he had made. Michael Lally read two of his poems he allowed me to reprint in the book, as well as tinkling the ivories to Thelonius Monk's "Easy Street," which Andy said was the book's anthem.  

A special part of the evening was giving "Might and Main" Awards to people who have contributed so much to making and maintaining America's Main Streets. It was a real pleasure that Mayor Barry W. Conaway joined us to receive the award for "Best Main Street" on behalf of his city. Tony Gonzalez received the "Best Spirit Animal" award on behalf of himself and the CLIMB team.  Winston Nelson accepted the award to the Ebenezer Gospel Choir for "Best Gospel Choir in the Circle." Peter Walsh accepted the "Love my 'Hood" award on behalf of Coogan's Restaurant, and pledged to fight for Main Streets and small businesses everywhere. While Robert Sember was not accepting the award to Johannesburg's Baked on Grant for "Best Poached Eggs on Rye Toast," he agreed that they were amazing.  

The evening represented what I have to say about Main Streets: they are made by our collective labor, the whole tangle of Main Streets is greater than the sum of its parts, and we need them now more than ever for their powerful centripetal force, pulling us together to solve our problems.  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

"We inter-are"

For weeks now I've been in the midsummer madness of my tomato vines, which want to encompass all of New Jersey. It's been terrifying and I understand why Shakespeare wrote that play. But the days are getting shorter and school is about to start. I have to turn my attention to my "to-do" list. As people who work with me know, I'm a devotee of the Planner Pad, one of those systems of productivity, guaranteeing flow from concept to product. I love products, which is why I've written over 100 papers and eight books, the latest of which, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All, comes out September 8th. 

This afternoon I was talking to Buddhist teacher Dr. Marisela Gomez, whose research team had started using Microsoft Planner, which I gather is something like my analog book. She was talking about going from buckets to tasks. "But Marisela," I asked, "is this maybe a neoliberal plot to keep us focused on little buckets instead of the big picture of what's happening to the ecosystem?" (We'd been talking earlier about the evils of neoliberalism, which is probably why I made that connection.) 

She reflected for a moment and then said, "Yes. We inter-are." She was taught by Thich Naht Hanh, who developed the expression. She had explained this phrase to me some time ago, that we do not live as isolated, atomistic individuals, but rather as an interdependent web of life. The reality is that we are not independent beings, we are interdependent beings -- "we inter-are."  In Thich Naht Hanh's calligraphy:

We talked about what an Inter-Are page might look like in a planner. I was so inspired by this way to open my frame of reference that I used the Design Sketchbook technique I learned from Dan Rothschild to make a collage about the Big Picture. I clipped some images that resonated: some graphs and text boxes from Shelterforce, and two images from the Times, one of a person picking cherries and the other of convict firefighters going to fight the raging fires in California. 

These captured for me the call from Rev Brian McLaren, one of my teachers at the Living School, that we strive to see and hear, “the other, the outsider, the outcast, the last, the least, the lost, the disgraced, the dispossessed.”

As the song, "Let there be peace on Earth," was earworming me, I added that. It makes a difference to look at the little buckets of work that lie ahead -- reading a dissertation, writing a paper, attending meetings -- with this big picture in mind. What if this were a practice -- to start my week on Sundays by looking at the stories that have passed my way and considering the Inter-Are of it all? Would I learn to hold this Big Picture without flinching, able to be a source of peace and love? Would I just veer off into escapist TV? (God, I hope not.) 

And what if all of us added an Inter-Are page to our planners? I am hoping the Dr. Gomez will invent a new planner for us, help us see that's it all more fragile than we thought, without being swamped by the truth.  

Friday, July 31, 2020

Coronavirus: Let's take it outside

Remember that old taunt? "You want a piece of me? We can take this outside." 
Guaranteed to induce most of us to back down. But now there's a new twist -- "You DON'T want a piece of me? Let's take it outside."  
People are inventing lots of new ways to take life outside. Schools are erecting tents with open sides, musicians are strolling around and performing on sidewalks and in driveways. And meetings of all kinds are assembling in parking lots with chairs carefully spaced apart. Historically, while fighting epidemics of tuberculosis, schools moved classes outside EVEN IN THE WINTER.  
The impetus for this is the clear evidence that the coronavirus is spread through the air, surely as droplets from coughing and sneezing, but likely as an invisible mist of aerosolized particles. If you remember the movie, Outbreak, in which Cuba Gooding, Jr., makes an antidote in a trailer in about a day,  you'll remember the great scene in the movie theater. An infected person sneezes, and the droplets go into the air and all over the movie theater, infecting everyone who's there. Obviously the infectious mist is invisible, so the special effects people colorized it for our fear and trembling. Now, every article I read about the invisible mist, I think of that scene. 
I, personally, don't want to go in anywhere. I have to go to the supermarket, and occasional doctor visits. That's enough. Everything else, I want to move outside. I'm considering getting a gas grill so that the great chefs of my acquaintance can cook in the backyard!
And it inspires a re-visit of the old taunt, "Coronavirus, you think you can get a piece of me? Let's take it outside!"

Monday, July 27, 2020

A bag of flour

I opened the paper this morning and saw a headline that said, "That flour that you bought could foretell our economy." That was very spooky because I had bought a bag of Maine Grains wheat flour and it was sitting right in front of me. I realized I'm a type -- the type with a yard and an oven, who has spent quarantine baking bread and growing vegetables. Disheartening, to say the least. But my ego issues, as always, were not the point. The article was trying to say that there is a way forward away from the madness of agribusiness, and part of it has to do with small mills that grind flour with local grain and local labor. King Arthur's Flour, though not so advanced as Maine Grain, has, the op/ed said, much the same spirit of small is better. I am convinced of this by no less an authority than Robert G. Wallace, who thinks that breaking away from agribusiness is key to preventing future pandemics, species extinction and other horrors. I wasn't thinking about all that when I bought the flour -- just how good the bread would taste. As to my garden, today I found a mega cucumber in my mega cucumber patch. And I will soon have more tomatoes than I ever dreamed possible in one-third of 4'x12' raised bed. Thank God for landscape architect Stephen Panasci, who is supervising my transition from theoretical to actual gardener.
My bag of Maine Grains Wheat Flour next to some produce from my garden -- including the giant cucumber I found lingering in the vines -- normal cucumbers for comparison.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Glass Box

I was thinking yesterday about the glass ceiling and how it has operated in my life. Then this morning I thought, no, for black women, it's more like a glass box. So I started thinking about the glass box and how annoying it is to hit the boundaries. I was asked recently would I like to apply for a job, but one of the criteria was NIH grants. Well, I might be a well-known researcher, but I've never been able to get an NIH grant. I am not alone in this, as science has shown that minority researchers are not funded at the rates of white researchers, in part because of the questions they ask. Of course, asking the government to fund you to look at why the government is bad is a "How long have you been beating your wife?" proposition. 

But then I thought not about the boundaries, but about the interior of the box. I am not in a solitary coffin. All the black, brown, red and yellow people of the world are in the box and we are really quite busy. Add us all up and we are billions. It is not lonely or boring or frightening. It is amusing and weird and joyful. It is home. 

All the people in box become our teachers, which is why Akeelah and the Bee rings so true. A white friend said he was sad that Ta-Nehisi Coates had to prepare his son to face racism. I thought, "Thank God." It's only the preparation that gets us on solid ground. 

As a teenager, I fought the acceptance of this fact with all my heart and soul. Like all painful truths, I had to pass through the depression that comes with painful truths, in this case, that I would hit limits not related to my abilities. But, having passed through that phase, I could relax into reality. I could embrace my possibilities and fight my limits. One of my father's many sayings was, "Lower your buckets where ye may," possibly a version of a line from Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech. My dad did not accept racial injustice, but he knew he had to do what he could wherever he was. When I didn't get NIH grants, I looked around for other ways to study the crises of the ghetto. There were many. Much to my pleasure, I have been able to document how the government is treating us in eight books and more than a hundred papers. 

Thinking about my white friend, it occurred to me that most white people are not prepared by their parents. They can't see the racism, and therefore live in a delusional state. The consequences of this are terrible for them and for all of us. We can see this in the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, white people have decided that this illness hits black and brown people and they are safe to party on. This is not how it works -- concentration is not containment -- and their actions growing out of racist assumptions are having horrifying consequences for the nation. 

Like many other black psychiatrists, I think of racism as a mental illness. Unlike many other mental illnesses, this illness can be cured. I have known lots of white people who faced the lie of racism and rejected it. As Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote in the New York Times, visit Monticello. You'll see the whole story there: the Big House AND the slave cabins. Guides will tell you, as mine did, about Jefferson's psyche. He grew up with black children, one of whom became his stablemaster. When that man died, Jefferson simply asked, "Who will replace him?" No words of mourning for his childhood friend. This is not normal, and I say that speaking as a psychiatrist. Truscott invites us to move out of the delusion by taking down Jefferson's memorial in Washington, which is a one-sided celebration, and going to Monticello for the whole story. Imagine: not only is racism a mental illness but also it can be cured by tourism.

The glass box that has placed limits on my productivity has not been the last word in my life. But imagine the world we might have, the energy we would liberate, if we stopped boxing some people in and forcing others to live in a delusion? As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.

There is hope for us. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12, which taught,  "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known."

Monday, July 6, 2020

Coronavirus: Getting through the next loooooong phase

The Morning, a daily briefing from the New York Times, shared this graph, which I saw when I had barely opened my eyes. I closed them again and pretended I didn't see that. But when I looked again, it was there in living color:

















Cases in the US are surging. The Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign hopes that we won't notice and can be convinced to reopen anyway, not to mention vote for Trump anyway.  

This is a shifting timeframe, and reordering of our hopes for a quick, decisive shutdown and quick return to normal. That is not happening. For many reasons and at many levels, the US was unable to do what so many other countries did, making it possible to return to life as they knew it. We can't just yet, and not for awhile.

What are the practices that will help us?

The Poor People's Campaign had posters that read: Stay inside, stay alive, organize and don't believe the lies. That was perfect for then. How do we adapt to now?

Stay inside -- well, actually stay inside your house when you can, don't go inside other spaces, like movies, malls, offices, and the terraces of bars. Let's call this "Avoid dirty air."  

Another news story about the high rates of infection among people of color had this graphic:

One of the reasons for the high rates of infection is crowded living quarters. People can't help where they live and they can't always help where they go. So the rest of us have a great responsibility for controlling our contributions to dirty air. We can call this "keep the air clean." It means wear a mask when outside your home.  

Stay alive -- we now know a good deal about the coronavirus. We have a few treatments that work. We know that early care is best and doctors now know much more about the warning signs. Covid-19 is a terrible illness, so prevention is the best cure, but early treatment is second best.  "Get care quickly" is perhaps what we need to go next.  

Don't believe the lies -- we have to do more than not believe the lies -- we have to have sound sources of information and we have to call out the lies. The Trump campaign promises to pile lies and lies. We have to speak the truth. My father, Ernest Thompson, pointed out to me how campaigns can attack the lies and win -- at that time we fighting to free Angela Davis, and we won.  So now it's "Attack the lies and win." Thanks and a tip of the hat to Dad!

Organize. I put this last because it becomes the core of the work. The reckless disdain shown by the current administration is killing poor and minority people at incredible rates. We must organize everyone who will listen, and have them make "Respect for all life" a part of all the work they do. 

So this is my advice for the next period of times:

Clean Air
Quick Care
Attack lies
Save lives!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Coronavirus: Getting through this moment, Revisited

The University of Orange took my March 22, 2020, blogpost about "Getting through this Moment" seriously and has stopped to look at all five suggestions I made. I have appreciate having those ideas reflected back to me from time to time. It's one thing to have a idea, but it is useful to be reminded that the best ideas are useless if we don't put them to work. We've had excellent advice about managing the coronavirus pandemic, but as a nation, we haven't done it. Therefore, the pandemic will continue to church through the population, widening its toll in numbers of people and numbers of communities affected. Rodrick and Deborah Wallace, in a new paper on the spread of infection, pointed out,  
Similar dynamics must, in fact, ultimately characterize an emerging pathogen across the full system of metropolitan regions, first drawn into the apex of the urban hierarchy, and then blown back and forth along it. Concentration is not containment, but the central mechanism for general spread.
As infections bounce around, we will face hard times indeed. Not a coherent exit strategy but months of illness, death, and troubles. I think I have to think what are the suggestions for getting through something that is no longer a moment in time, but a long haul. Today's post from UofO, about building a personal foundation of spirit, is surely one. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Coronavirus: How We Help: Every mask is a prayer and a song!

Here's a photo published in nj.com of white-presenting New Jerseyans having a really good time, without masks and without social distancing.  Just like old times!  Obviously, they are driven to gather by encoding in our genome over which we have some, but not all that much, control.  The great American urbanist, Jane Jacobs, said that people like to be where people are.  That is why the vast parks of New York can be empty while Fifth Avenue is packed.  


But, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his column today, it is a bad idea to give into our genes so quickly.  They might be young and white and therefore at less risk than some others, but risk is a calculation of "if."  What matters is what happens when you get infected or sick.  And we literally haven't a clue.  As more and more people of all ages recover, grim stories of debilitation are appearing.  And what will we know five or ten years from now?

Yeah, I know that taking risks is also in our genes and those genes are expressed at just the age of the people in this photo.  Happily people also have highly evolved brains and we can use those brains to think.  One of the important ways to think with our brains is to accept reality. Here is the graph from the NY Times today of the rise of cases, which Dr. Anthony Fauci warned could go to 100,000 new cases A DAY:


We can also use our brains to learn geography.  

The geography of disease spread is well-known, and includes hierarchical diffusion (moving from major cities to their satellites), spatial contagion (moving in an area) and network diffusion (moving among groups that are connected).  

People have diagrammed how this unfolded with the Covid-10 pandemic.   The New York Times made a diagram of the spread of Covid across the nation, before we caught on to what was happening.  El Pais shared three studies of infection in groups of people, people working in an office, on a bus, and in a restaurant.  These give us insights into thinking about reopening.  

Here's my take:
  • First, being together indoors at close quarters is the heart of the transmission process.  We have to spread out.  And we have to wear masks at all times.  This means NO to indoor dining.  It seems possible to be inside far apart -- more experience will tell us if this is so.
  • Second, being outside seems to be OK.  Masks are still essential and distancing is good.  But the great expanse of air helps, and moving helps.  A runner without a mask going by me is not likely to get me sick.  Happily it's summer -- let's be outside as much as possible.  
  • Third, standing around on a patio drinking in close quarters with other people does NOT count as outside. 
  • Fourth, if everybody would wear a mask, it would have a powerful effect on transmission. 
  • Fifth, as Thomas Edison would want us to remember, every failure will be a time for learning how to do it better.  We must keep studying every outbreak.
And here are some words of wisdom from my dear friend, Sara Crystal, RN, posted on Facebook (emphasis added by me):
yes I like to push and prod each of you to wear a mask and use precautions and get realistic in these desperate and tragic times. but I want to say, I feel we WILL get through this, have parties and potlucks and a vaccine and restart businesses and projects. we are in a cocoon right now and we WILL bust out. not by ignoring and pretending the virus isnt there, but by using all our capacity as a human race to overcome it. we will be healed. we must first acknowledge it and protect each other in love. weep with those who weep, be kind to the stranger, love one another with a pure heart fervently. try harder. do all the good you can. those who are younger and healthier must bear some of the burden for others. we will manage. and not by "herd immunity" bs, but by finding the true medical answers and sharing and helping and fighting for a real cure. let us not sacrifice anyone, ever. but never lose hope. every mask is a prayer and a song, and we will survive, stronger and better.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Time to tell the truth

Brent Staples wrote a remarkable piece in the New York Times last Sunday, June 19, 2020, about Tulsa. He shared a story I'd not heard before --

The helpless old black man who was shredded alive behind a fast-moving car would have been well known in Tulsa’s white downtown, where he supported himself by selling pencils and singing for coins. He was blind, had suffered amputations of both legs and wore baseball catcher’s mitts to protect his hands from the pavement as he scooted along on a wheeled wooden platform.  Among the white bystanders who witnessed the pencil seller’s grisly end was a teenager named E.W. Maxey, who was undersheriff of Tulsa County by the time he recounted the carnage to the local historian Ruth Sigler Avery 50 years later. Undersheriff Maxey admitted to knowing the thugs who tied the “good old colored man” to a convertible and sped off along Main Street. Describing the scene to Ms. Avery in 1971, he recalled that the victim “was hollering. His head was being bashed in, bouncing on the steel rails and bricks” that lined the street.

Staples makes clear that Maxey, knew who was in that convertible, kept the secret, as white Tulsa tried to keep the secret of the whole massacre.  White people who tell the secret are called names like "race traitor." But that's part of what this moment is about. 

I think the deeper secret is that racism was invented for the sake of the ruling class, which keeps social control and makes extra profit. All of us are asked to keep that secret. The truth is that in the United States it's always about race and class.  

Whatever secrets of whatever atrocities -- is this a privilege that we've been given? Or a living hell?  The US, with 5% of the world's population, has 25% of its prisoners and 25% of its Covid-19 cases.  

This is a moment for each of us to think about deep truths and to consider telling the truth.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"The worst mistake we could make in this time of rallies and marches would be to demand too little!"

June 20, 2020, 1:28pm.  I've just finished participating in the Mass Assembly of the Poor People's Campaign.  I was lucky that I had a great "bus ride" with friends and family.  We laughed and joked, and explained the snacks and books we'd brought for the ride.  We needed this virtual bus to replace the long-awaited bus we were planning to take to Washington.  At 10am, we "arrived" and went to the Assembly, keeping in touch by text, which is the way to "share" an event these days.

The goal of the Assembly was to change the narrative by changing the narrators, and thereby to help us actually see the depth and breadth of the pain of the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in our country. So many people spoke, about so many issues, in short chapters. Women are suffering, let's hear from women. Mass incarceration is choking us, let's hear from the formerly incarcerated. Native communities are suffering, let's hear from them.

Let's hear from them.

I know all of these stories, and am constantly, in my own teaching and writing, trying to get across this point. But nothing I could say could equal the power of this time hearing from people speaking about their struggles. As an American, I am horrified. As a physician, I am crying -- 700 people a day die from poverty, that was before Covid-19, and you could see the weathering in the speakers' bodies and their faces and their voices.

Reverend William Barber II cautioned us that the worst mistake we could make in this time of rallies and marches would be to demand too little. The Assembly was designed to hammer home the lesson that, "The political and economic systems in the U.S. are plagued by the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and a war economy, ecological devastation and a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism."

No single demand could undo this -- it is truly an ecology of inequality. Therefore the Poor People's Campaign has pushed for a complex of demands carried by a moral fusion coalition. It is the combination of the two -- complex demands and the moral fusion coalition -- that are the right way forward in these times.

Reverend Barber asked us to each take an inventory of our time on this earth. Not to be morbid, he said, but we've seen how fast and unexpectedly life could end. "If," he asked, "you knew you had 48 hours to live, what would you fight for with your last breath?"

For me, the answer is simple. My life has been about wrapping my mind around the epidemics affecting poor and minority communities, trying to understand the way out of this mess. With my last breath, I'd say, "Join the Poor People's Campaign." If you didn't get to see the Assembly this morning, watch at 6pm tonight or when they post the recording. It lights the way. As they said over and over, "Somebody's hurting our people.  It's gone on far too long, and we won't be silent anymore."



Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Coronavirus: Every attack on the poor must embolden our agitation!

Back at the beginning of shelter-in-place, I said there were five tasks we had to do to stay same and come out alive.  One was that we must fight for justice.  The outpouring of people into the streets demanding justice makes sense in a time when our fractured, abusive system is laid bare by the deadly progression of coronavirus through the land.

For four years, the 400 Years of Inequality Project has held up the work of Reverend Dr. William Barber II as charting the path away from inequality towards a nation truly for all.  When the Poor People's Campaign announced the Assembly in Washington on June 20th, we pointed our work in that direction.

The time has come.  There are two events we're doing to lead up to the Assembly at 10am this Saturday.

Tonight, we're holding a workshop on the People's Platform for Equity that we wrote based on our 4 years of examining the problem of inequality, including all the observances we got to attend of the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown.  You can join us at tonight (June 17th) at 7pm for an explanation of the People's Platform and how we got there.

Saturday, we've organized a "virtual" bus that will get you to the Assembly on time!  Join us at 9:30am to share signs and chants, as we "go" to Washington to hear the voices of the poor and dispossessed.  Here's a short video from the Poor People's Campaign that will give you a taste of what's to come!


And of course there's the June 20th Assembly of Poor People's Campaign.  Part protest and part programmatic organizing, this Assembly will us get on the same page about the demands we need to place on our governments, local, state and federal, to stop the abuse of the poor, which translates to the abuse of us all.  It will be a crucial moment in this charged era.

Join us!

Be there!

Monday, June 15, 2020

Coronavirus: Hedonism makes us heedless

New Jersey is on pace for more re-opening today.  It is, as Aubrey Murdock put it, a slippery slope -- I want to dive into so many things that I've been missing, hedonism making me heedless.  I fear I am failing the marshmallow test, that test they give kids in kindergarten to see if they can delay gratification.  Of course in the test I'm taking, they keep moving when I get the marshmallow -- it is now not two weeks of delay but maybe a year or two.  And while waiting, I'll be stricken with polio or some other dread disease that is surging in the absence of the usual controls. Or, in my sorry case, diabetes from baking too many cakes. 

I want, in no particular order, to: have fried clams at a beachside shack, see the new MoMA, give a reading of my Main Street book in a crowded bookstore, walk down the street eating ice cream, fly business class to Istanbul and stay at Hotel Turkoman, go to Michel Cantal-Dupart's birthday extravaganza, shop at a Christmas bazaar in Berlin, go to the baths, see a movie at the cinema, and see the Alice at Madame Claude's Bis. You notice immediately that this list does not include "defund the police" or "end war." It's just pleasure. It does not include a single chore or even anything difficult -- no learning, no cleaning, no caretaking. Just fun. And I certainly don't want to wear a mask while doing of any of those things.

Is this what I've really learned from this quiet time of baking bread, exercising, and playing the cello? Is this why the Jazz Age followed World War I and 1918 Flu Pandemic? 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Coronavirus: How We Help: We Listen

One of the students in my Urban Colloquium class this past semester was sheltering-in-place at his home in Queens.  He wrote this poem, which he gave me permission to share here anonymously.

Poem

As I sit safely in my home, my phone is filled with news and Go Fund Mes
The privilege of working remotely, still getting a check, and not feeling hungry

Who is really an essential worker and who is not?
How the hell is my neighborhood dying, yet still being harassed by the cops?

You “discipline” the dying, while handing masks to the living.
I saw the picture, you prefer shirtless white people sitting.

How is it that I keep track of this, yet feel paralyzed by the whole situation?
Trying to keep my family physically and mentally safe has kept me in isolation 

Guilt lays over me and suffocates my character
Who am I? Why am I not helping? Don't all those falling matter?

Am I selfish?
Does being an activist leave room for this? 
You said donating was not enough, and solidarity was the road to bliss.

I have fallen and let myself go
Not knowing how to reach out, I dive back into the computer, though my productivity is low.

Incomplete, I slump into the abyss.
Missing...
A part of me
I miss.

I fall
And continue to fall endlessly, until I am finally interrupted

Without any request, my body begins to resuscitate 
Vibrations begin to fill my soul
Kids yelling, speakers blasting
It was Bad Bunny and Hector Lavoe
I slowly resuscitate 
My neighborhood is living, it has never let me go

This poem captures that moment of despair that so many of us have felt -- what can we do that would be enough in the face of all that is happening?  But then the poet is distracted by the vibrations that begin to fill his body -- "It was Bad Bunny and Hector Lavoe."  As he listens, the burden lifts, is lifted by his neighborhood.

There is so much to listen to these days. Last night I listened to "Why We Fight: Voices from the Struggle for Health Care Justice."  Organized by Voices of a People's History and 400 Years of Inequality, the readings conveyed so many emotions, so many ideas. I resuscitated. The burden was lifted by the neighborhood of people who have struggled over centuries to win justice.

It might be Bad Bunny, it might be Dorothea Dix you need to listen to. What it is I don't know. I know that listening is part of how we heal, find the strength to keep going, resuscitate.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Coronavirus: Of battered spouses and rioters

Herbert Aptheker, the Marxist historian and author of American Negro Slave Revolts, was my professor in college and I often wrote to him in years after graduation to discuss things that were on my mind. One of these was how to name civil unrest. He always used words like "rebellion" to describe the events of the long, hot summers of the 1960s. As my studies of psychiatry progressed, I resisted such language. I thought that "riot" was a better description of the chaotic events that unfolded on the streets, as tempers boiled over and people took their feelings out on storefronts.

Because "riots," "rioters" and "rioting" are used so disparagingly, there has not been much reason to press the point but it has been rattling around in my brain for a long time. A conversation today with anthropologist Edgar Rivera Col√≥n helped me articulate my thought that those inchoate moments are  speaking an emotional language, asking us to listen with our hearts, not our judgements. I think they convey scream, and we are meant to hear and feel all the terror and impossibility held in that scream. I am writing "scream" in italics to make it a neologism, an emotion word.  To me, the word "riot" -- defined as "public violence, disorder or tumult" -- has a core of scream that the word "uprising" does not contain. 

As a psychiatrist, that scream is the deep and essential communication and it should neither be denigrated nor prettied up. It is, I realized in the conversation with Edgar, like domestic violence, like the moment when the battered spouse picks up a rolling pin and bashes in the head of the abuser. We are supposed to hear the breaking point in the act, the straw that broke the camel's back, "no worse there is none, pitched past pitch of grief," as the poet wrote

If we could hear the scream, and hear in it the years of torment, we would understand that the battered spouse and the rioter are acting in self-defense. We would honor the courage of their refusal -- which I think is what Dr. Aptheker was trying to get at -- and we would see from their acts the structural violence that was and is the real danger threatening all of us.  

I worked with Hannah Cooper for two years on our book, From Enforcers to Guardians: A Public Health Approach to Ending Police Violence. I read a lot about the kinds of brutality that define policing at its worst. The key analysts of the issue, like Shaun King and Paul Butler, have helped us to see the vast and insidious system of support for this brutality, so extensive that it is nearly impervious to change, and hence the scream.  

But we know that this scream at this moment holds much more than the rage at police brutality: the path of the coronavirus has revealed the dense fabric of inequality in a manner we have never seen before, the Grim Reaper striding the paths of social stratification to take the weak, the marginalized, the exposed, while those with wealth and power tweet their derision and deny shelter to the terrified.  If this were all going to end in this tenth week of shelter-in-place we might feel some hope, but we see 40 million unemployed, jobs disappearing not to return, and mass evictions and hunger looming on the horizon.  

This particular scream has risen from the streets to reach into the hearts of all of us.  Maybe ten weeks ago our ears might have been stoppered with the certainty of the next paycheck, but not now.  Now we see, now we hear, now we are so hurt.  In this moment we both feel the scream and see the system that is hurting all of us.  I find, for myself, that it is only in drawing on spiritual resources that I can do both of these tasks.  As Chogyam Trungpa said, "Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun.  Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea."  

Put another way, in the immortal voice of Odetta, "Another man done gone," a song which is so precise in conveying the pain it has survived decades and crossed cultures, giving us in music an understanding that defies words, yet she holds us to it, helps us face it. In the embracing power of her art, we go deep, which opens time to think.

We need time to absorb these ten weeks of revelation, to digest that we aren't going "back to normal," but to somewhere else, somewhere new. One step forward is to get on the "bus" and go the Poor People's Assembly on June 20th. RSVP now. You can come on the "bus" of 400 Years of Inequality which will board at 9:30am for the 10am rally. You have to bring your own cake, though we will provide recipes. And you have to make your own signs, though there will be lots of models. You could also organize your own "bus" with your friends and relations.  We have to be there, in the space of indignation and planning, so that we can move forward together, in a massive moral fusion coalition, towards a new future that reflects what we are FOR.  









Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Coronavirus: How We Help -- Gifts for the Spirit

Collective recovery is all about knowing that there is an "us" which has been wounded in this period.  We've been wounded by death, by illness, by intense strain, by retreating away from each other, by the failure of businesses and organizations that have anchored our lives.  We have lost touch with one another in ways that we will never know, except in the deep foreboding that "things have changed."

There is no amount of individual therapy that can heal "us."  This is something we have to do together.  People know this intuitively, but when we articulate collective recovery, we can do it faster and more thoroughly.  Here's what we need to know:

THE THREE GOALS
  • Heal the suffering of the individuals;
  • Heal the fractures among our communities;
  • Undo the inequality which has intensified this catastrophe and hobbled us from managing it.
THE KEY IS TO MOBILIZE OUR ORGANIZATIONS:
  • Our organizations are key to getting it done fast and well;
  • Our organizations must reconnect in three directions -- from each organization to its constituents. from the organizations to the other organizations, and from the coalition of organizations to our policymakers;
  • Every organization has a role to play, from those as small as the Youth Choir in a church to those as large as the American Medical Association.  
What I want to do in a series of posts is to share stories of organizations that are doing their part.  There are an infinite number of ways organizations can contribute. Let us start with GIFTS FOR THE SPIRIT, because we need this to keep up the motivation for the long haul of safe transition, possible new waves of infection and rebuilding what has been damaged.

The formal and informal networks of musicians of New Orleans, activated by Wynton Marsalis, recorded a second line for all of us. My friend Sarah Townley texted some of us in her network her prayers for Dr. James Mahoney, who died while tending patients in Brooklyn.  I shared the Second Line link with her and she wrote back, "Thank you for this -- this got Cecilia and I doing a kitchen dance. So moving. So necessary."


Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church took to the streets of Queens to bring church to the people.  Rev. Peter Purpura with a small procession walked the neighborhood of Middle Village and met with parishioners who have set up small tables with worship items to meet with him.


The Poor People's Campaign's "Stay in Place, Stay Alive, Organize and Don't Believe the Lies" has asked artists to make posters with those slogans.  This one arrived in my inbox today.  Its coherent, joyful message lifted my spirits, assuring me that I am NOT alone is hating the injustice that permeates our nation and has made this pandemic so horrible for us.




Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Coronavirus: "Play with fads, work with trends and live by principles"

NY Week 9 and the talk has turned to re-entry.  I don't know about you, but I am just getting used to managed retreat.  I have great new hobbies and so many things happening in the zoom-o-sphere that I can enjoy!  There's a huge national med school graduation with all the people who play doctors on TV, a production of "King Lear" by Theater of War, and UofO Digital Campus which is growing everyday.  So I'm set for a while -- no matter, re-entry is coming.

But re-entry to what?  Going "back" is a fiction, as we know that much has changed, including each of us.  The naming buffs will surely get on that, although I'm still waiting to learn what to call the first decade of the century -- "oughts" seems not to have caught on.  Let's call it "not-back" for the moment.

The main characteristic of not-back, as far as I can tell, is uncertainty and this is just not attractive.  There is nobody in the whole world who knows what's next.  That's always been true, but the relatively slow pace of change has allowed us to think that we knew what was next.  So what can help us feel our way forward?

I had the good fortune to serve on the National Board of the American Institute of Architects with Futurist David Zach.  He never talked about the future as "a thing."  He always presented wildly evocative pictures and talked about "might," as in, what might happen.  He has pointed out that we should "play with fads, work with trends and live by principles."  Here's how he defined those terms. 

Fads are "all about being in the moment."  Baking is a fad of this moment, and a very pleasant one, at that.  [I made shortbread cookies last night--Mark Bittman's recipe, but next time I'm trying Melissa Clark.]  

Trends are about movement -- "they are like the current that moves the boat."  Trends are very important for the future, because they are enduring and leave their mark.  We can, with attention, discern trends, which can serve us like channel guides.  A trend in this moment is for new diseases to arise because of human abuse of the ecosystem.  This is a trend that will continue and might accelerate.  

"Principles," Zach noted, "are about the eternal. Things that don't change, shouldn't change, can't change." [He loves to be silly, so he quotes Groucho Marx on this point: "Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."]  Principles, therefore, are like the stars, the constants of our navigation.  "Respect for all living beings" is a principle that we can use in planning for a future that is just and sustainable.  

In the Zachian future, we enjoy fads, forecast trends and stand by our principles.  We do this, for the most part, in small increments of time -- this moment, this day -- because we can manage what's in front of us.  I think this is powerful advice for moving forward.