Thursday, April 30, 2020

Coronavirus: A Turn Must Be Made

At the 1951 founding convention of the National Negro Labor Council, Southern union leader Viola Davis said of Jim Crow and reactionary politics in the South, "A turn must be made." This important civil rights organization was particularly focused on equal opportunity in employment; my father, Ernest Thompson, was one of the founders and told me many stories of the Council's highly successful work, including stunning efforts, like the Gateway to the South campaign, that fought employment injustice in the Southern states.

Ms. Davis's words echo for me today, and remind me of a dream I had back in January that humanity had hit a wall and our only hope for survival lay in making a turn. One article in the news today really reinforced that this is not a dream I had but a reality I glimpsed.  It was a piece about forcing the meat packing factories to open, without requiring strong protections for the workers, thousands of whom are infected with coronavirus and many of those people are dying.

This broke my heart open. I have seen so much injustice in the past two months: poor hospitals held together with duct tape and verging on bankruptcy; tribal peoples with horrendous rates of infection and death; essential workers with no protections; a loan program for small businesses raided shamelessly by multinational corporations aided by their bankers. And these are not the stories in the radical press.  These are stories in the Times and the Washington Post.

Perhaps the task of the managed retreat was two-fold.  To pause, as best we could, to save as many lives as possible.  And in that pause -- that boom against the wall of the ecosystem which can't take much more of our abuse -- to have time to hear and see how it all works.  To watch squirrels get fat and goats frolicking in cities because they aren't afraid, and the vulnerable dying because of the weight of all the deprivations and deprecations.

Having seen, having felt, can I -- can you -- just go back to the life that produced this moment?

I say no.  Perhaps you are thinking so, too.  When Viola Davis said to the NNLC, "A turn must be made," it lit a fire in the organization, and sent sparks throughout the South that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.  We can ignite the Turn.  And we now know -- if we weren't sure before -- that it must be made.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coronavirus: Suffering is optional

In NY/NJ COVID Week 6, we are all suffering, as evidenced by irritation, depression, anxiety and undefined moodiness.  It is time to ponder the concept that suffering is optional, the mental training that teaches us to see the glass as "half-full."  In psychiatric circles, we think of this as the remarkable tool of cognitive therapy.

Aaron T. Beck, MD, developed this therapy which is based on the concept that we can control our emotions by controlling our thinking.  Specifically, by avoiding all-or-nothing thinking we can manage depression.  It turns out that this powerful cognitive intervention is now used for the treatment of many psychiatric disorders and is one of the most powerful tools that mental health providers have.  Dr. Beck is widely lionized for his work.

Eleanor H. Porter had the same insight half a century earlier.  She wrote a young adult book called, Pollyanna, in which the young heroine is taught by her father how to bear poverty with good cheer by turning her gaze from she didn't have to what she did have.  Porter called this "the glad game."  Nobody knows her name, and "Pollyanna" has become a term of derision for someone inappropriately optimistic.  As a friend of mine said the other day with pride, "I'm no Pollyanna."

Well, I suggest that in NY/NJ Covid Week 6, we need to revisit the legacy of Pollyanna, both because the Glad Game helped her and because, using the game, she helped a whole town.  With the whole of the metro area becoming cranky, verging on despondent, and ready to throw ourselves out of the house and rush to sea, we need some mass therapy.  Pollyanna has what we need.

So first, let's redeem the Glad Game from disrepute.  Pollyanna was being raised by her father, a missionary, and they relied on missionary barrels for much of what they needed.  Pollyanna longed for a doll, but the barrel only contained a pair of crutches.  She was heartbroken.  Her father then invented the game.  "What," he asked, is there to be glad about a pair of crutches?"

Pollyanna was intrigued and could think of nothing.  "We can be glad we don't have to use them," he said.  She was awed by this discovery and the Glad Game became a great source of comfort to her.  After her father's death, she went to live with her Aunt Polly, who forbade her to speak of her father.  She turned to others with troubles around town and taught them to play the Glad Game with her, lifting her mourning and their spirits.  She, unfortunately, fell and broke her back, which brought the whole town to Aunt Polly's door.  Each of the townspeople said, "Tell the little girl I'm playing the Glad Game."  Aunt Polly had no idea what they were talking about.  Someone clued her in, and she finally was able to express her love for her little niece and to let go of her resentment of Pollyanna's father.  [See PBS' Pollyanna tell the story of the Glad Game.]

Two things: first, Porter's Glad Game shares a principle element with Beck's highly regarded therapy, so let's stop casting aspersions.  Let's, instead, start to celebrate Eleanor Porter, a woman who made a great psychological discovery and helped generations of people manage hard times. 

Second, it is a game and people need to play together.  As we are all in some mental state other than perfect happiness, we need to play it together.  We need to find what we can be glad about in our situation.  We need help with this.  It is easy to say, "I can't feel better because I'm ____ [poor, ill, alone, frightened, etc]." Yet there is no one among us -- and I say that without exception -- who has not got something for which to be glad.  A friend or family member can push -- as Pollyanna did -- to find that something in the face of all kinds of deprivation and suffering.  Shifting our thinking doesn't take away the material problems, but it does lessen our suffering about them.  As Haruki Murakami pointed out, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional."

In my case, I'm getting cranky because I've been alone for weeks.  Yet during that time I've been watching the lilac in my front yard bloom.  I take a photo of it every day.  Google photos reminds me of the pictures I took "on this day, so-and-so many years ago."  In general, in past years, there is one photo of the lilac.  This year there are 40 so far.  I am glad that I've had time to watch the blossoms unfold.  I would never have taken time to smell the lilacs, so to speak, but time has been given to me by coronavirus and opened a new world I'm glad to visit.

In The New York Times today there were some really fascinating examples of what people were finding to be glad about.  Just one example: the great Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is writing a novel about plague in Istanbul, has found that his fear of the coronavirus has taught him humility and solidarity.  He wrote,
For a better world to emerge after this pandemic, we must embrace and nourish the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the current moment.
Ready to get started? Here's your homework, and my "movie of the week" recommendation: watch Disney's Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills.  And streaming services: Contribute to the world's mental health.  Take the movie out from behind any paywalls so that everyone can see it!  And, for those of you who prefer the book, dive in!  It's old-fashioned young adult lit, not as thrilling as a vampire series, but very rewarding.  You'll meet the real Pollyanna, and her cheer in the face of being poor, orphaned, and paralyzed will enrich your life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Coronavirus: The blow to Main Street

Main Street, meaning "we the people," and Main Street, meaning the civic and commercial centers of our cities, are taking body blows through this pandemic.  One example of this is the closing of Coogan's restaurant in Northern Manhattan.  Coogan's survived Presbyterian Hospital's rent-gauging by the concerted action of friends of Coogan's, helped by Times' report Jim Dwyer and playwright Lin Manuel Miranda.  But too many expenses couldn't be defrayed and this venerable and important anchor of Broadway has been forced to shutter its doors.  When we reopen New York, some chain store, that hijacked the small business loan fund to survive, will move in with no care for the neighborhood, not like Coogan's cared.  This is a sad day for all of us.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Coronavirus: "Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today"

How many times did my parents suggest that I attend to today's chores today?  Millions.  I was and remain a procrastinator, but that sneaky sort of person, always busy and so seemingly perfectly justified that I can't get it all done.  Of course, I'm busy with the work I like, while the work I dislike languishes on my desk.

This has caught up with me. That my washing machine was not functioning properly didn't matter for long time because I could take the clothes around the corner to laundromat.  Now I'm caught in my house -- I mean safely sheltering in place -- with a washing machine that has to be coaxed to do its job.  And you would think I've learned my lesson, but no, there's still work I don't want to do and that isn't getting done as promptly as it should.

I raise this issue here because it seems to me that pretty much everybody in the world is facing this problem. We have to change the way we live to avoid mass extinction, possibly including our own species, and it is actually something we can't put off.  I read in The New York Times about a study of the risks we face from climate change.  If we hit the fateful increase of two degrees centigrade, we could face a sudden catastrophic loss of species that form our ecosystem, possibly including our own.  Reporting on a study that appeared in the scientific journal Nature, the Times article said:
The study predicted that large swaths of ecosystems would falter in waves, creating sudden die-offs that would be catastrophic not only for wildlife, but for the humans who depend on [them].
"For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they're not," said Alex L. Pigot, a scientist at University College London and one of the study's authors. "Then, it's too late to do anything about it because you've already fallen over this cliff edge."
This is my experience of tolerating a dysfunctional washing machine.  It was fine until suddenly it wasn't and I couldn't do anything to fix it.  While the problem of my washing machine is not threatening my life, our collective threat to the world-as-we-know-it is a threat to you and me and all seven billion of us humans and gadzillions of other living beings.

The coronavirus that we're grappling with is a both a warning of troubles to come and a roadmap for the changes we can make and what will happen if we do.  In this short time of human retreat. BBC reported, animals have started to embrace more parts of the world and the skies and waters have become clear.  Our changes have had a rapid and positive impact on the state of the ecosystem.

I have learned how optional much of the busy-ness of my life was and that I could make do with much, much less. Yesterday I planned to record a lesson on making brownies for the University of Orange Digital Campus.  When I pulled out the box, I found it contained only one egg.  I thought, "There has to be a substitute for eggs on the internet."  I found that the small amount of applesauce in my frig was a perfect replacement for the other egg.  The brownies were not quite the same, but they proved the point that I could make do with what I had.

In this regard, one of the greatest things that's happened to me is that Amazon Prime is not one day delivery.  In fact, who knows how many days Amazon will be.  That leaves plenty of time to look around and find alternatives.  The other great thing is that conferences and conventions are canceled and I don't have to fly here and there.  I can sit in my house and join meetings by Zoom.  That frees up time to spend watching the happy animals frolicking in my backyard.  The squirrels in particular are getting so fat because they don't have to scurry off every time people come!

In this sudden break, I have gotten to see that the way my life was woven into the world contributed to the intolerable burden humans place on the ecosystem.  I have been forced to live more mindfully for now. but what will happen when the all-clear sounds?  The temptation will be to forget that this ever happened and to act as if my old life were acceptable.  But my old life, which depended on excess consumption of many, many things, contributed to looming catastrophe.  Better to change and avoid the cliff's edge of our species and all others!

Resisting the status quo will take backbone.  The other thing I've seen in this period is great courage, not only the sublime courage of the essential workers, but also the bravery of leaders who showed the way forward.  I am reminded of the photo of healthcare executive Bruce Greenstein who offered an elbow to Donald Trump, rather than shake his hand.  What role models these people have been!  The pathmakers of ecological respect will be the ones to watch for in the months to come.

Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault pointed out that the word "courage" comes from the French, coeur, which means "heart."  She said that it is the clarity that we get from love that gives us the strength to do what we have to do.  As one of the tasks of getting through this moment in time, my colleagues Lourdes Rodriguez, Nupur Chaudhury and I suggested that we needed to "turn on the love."  It now seems even more useful, as the more love we feel now, the more courage we'll have to turn away from the status quo towards a new way of life, in harmony with the Earth.  I put this sign on my door and in my yard to remind passersby and me of that great truth!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Coronavirus: Everybody's praying

I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, "Everybody in America is praying."  Then I went back to sleep.  The thought returned in the morning.  "Praying" includes, I think, opening an email by saying, "I hope you are well," or closing a phone call by saying, "Stay safe!"  This is very Shakespearean: "I pray thee, good Sir, don't get sick."  In that sense, I am praying all the time -- when I think of my children, my nieces and nephews, my friends, my neighbors, it is with the prayer, "Be well, stay safe" in my heart.  It helps me understand the phrase, "Pray all the time," which the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, a small group of early Christians living in the frightening circumstances of their time. "Pray all the time" hardly fits with the busy-ness of ordinary life (you know, last month).  Who had time to pray all the time?  But now I think of it as breathing in, "Be safe," and breathing out, "Stay well."

Apostle Paul also suggested to the Thessalonians, "Thank God no matter happens."  Which raises the question, "How is God related to coronavirus?"  But then the answer that comes to mind for me is that They (God)* created everything, including evolution, ergo, newly emerged viruses fall into that category.  But why thank Them for newly emerged viruses that are shutting down the world as I know it?

I think about this a lot.  The best answer I can come up is that the world is what it is, which is to say complicated, and it has good and bad and stupid in it.  I especially don't like stupid, but it seems to have been part of human societies since forever, posing profound questions.  Which reminds me of a Facebook post I saw, with a photo of a man carrying a donkey across a minefield.

The post said, "The moral of the story is that during difficult times the first ones you have to keep under control are the jackasses who don't understand the danger and do as they please."  With deepest apologies to donkeys, who have a lot of wisdom but might not know about minefields, it is an interesting observation.  And so instead of wondering about why evolution included viruses, I am wondering why it included people who ignore danger?  So far, no answer to that, and no answers as to why I should be grateful for them.  But maybe the whole point of being grateful for everything is that the world is one whole web of interdependent life (and not just the particular way of life I had March 1, 2020).  I can't pick and choose parts of the web I like, leaving out the parts I don't like.  I can't see the web unless I accept the principle that it is one thing.  I can't get the point except through gratitude for the whole.  

Which brings me back to the idea that woke me from sleep, that we are all praying.  And what I can conclude for sure is that in world with stupid people and evolving viruses, I really do need to pray all the time!

*I heard somebody refer to God as "they" and I thought it was profound and useful.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Coronavirus: Finding the hidden figures (Hidden Figures II)

My New School colleague, architect William Morrish, knows how to design a project.  He designed our 400 Years of Inequality project, which has been a smashing success.  Today he joined a text thread on updating the urban policy PhD curriculum to be relevant to the challenges of the times and shared a preliminary proposal for managing the coronavirus pandemic.

William Morrish

12:02 PM (7 hours ago)
to MiodragmeJosephMichaelOscarEvrenGabrielaALEXCaglaJennifer
Agree with everyone.  Seeking a new return trajectory to Earth after capsule fire, the Moon astronauts sent this message:  "HOUSTON, we have a situation"...... What is our trajectory for returning into our Earth....  Who is our HOUSTON, and who are our brilliant African-American women mathematicians who will calculate our re-entry by hand on paper... let's deploy people, not technology.  

Coronavirus: “Man bites dog” or “Dog bites man”? (Hidden Figures I)

Journalists have often emphasized to me the difference between news and not-news by comparing, “Man bites dog” which is news, to “Dog bites man” which is not.  So the growing number of headlines about disproportionate death from Covid-19 among African Americans strikes me as not-news.  This is perhaps because I started to do AIDS research in 1986 looking at the question, “Why was there excess risk for AIDS among Blacks and Hispanics in the United States?”  After some years of work, I could confidently say that the answer lay in the dismantling of the communities of color, a process that was vicious then and has not stopped since.  While gentrification has been temporarily driven out of the headlines, it is the latest form that this disruption has taken. 

In fact, even if you don’t know about serial forced displacement and deindustrialization – the prime movers of excess risk for anything – it’s obvious from the simple observations of who can get out of the way of infection and who can’t, who can pay the rent for some months without work, and who can’t, who can get prompt access to excellent medical care and who can’t.  Those are the people who are at greatest risk, and Blacks, Hispanics and immigrants are over-represented among them.  That they are likely to die in outrageous numbers is a foregone conclusion.  We can parse the disparities among those at highest risk, if we need to.  Many immigrants, for example, are younger and in excellent health, even if terribly poor.  They are in better shape to survive than the African American population, which includes older people and people with a high rate of chronic illness from “weathering,” as Arline Geronimus styles it.  While some are saying that the issue is a desperate lack of data, I am reminded of my colleague Dr. Jennifer Stevens Dickson, who, at the end of her dissertation on the failure of AIDS care to reach poor women of color, declared, “No further research is needed.”

That was stunning.  That was news. 

Dickson broke with tradition, which always says more research is needed.  She concluded that the patterns were too entrenched to need more study.  What we needed was sound policy to address the underlying structural causes.  That our society did not do that – in fact, the trends of serial forced displacement and concentration of wealth have made things worse – brings us to this moment and the “discovery” that Black people are at excess risk for death from coronavirus.  As a scholar who has been writing about this for decades, I can only shake my head.

Paul Krugman has said of this moment that we have put our economy into a medically-induced coma, and what we need is disaster relief, particularly for those most at risk. This is hampered by neoliberal policies that have dismantled much of the safety net and left us all inadequately sheltered from this storm.  Still we must try to fill the gaps, such as opening access to health care for all, supporting weak health systems, getting money in the hands of all the poor – not just some – and protecting the vulnerable from eviction.  The call in Britain to support the National Health System brought out hundreds of thousands of volunteers.  We could do the same.  Many are willing to deliver food to the housebound, raise money so the poor can eat, and carry out other tasks that make it possible for those at most risk to get the help they need. 

We could do this.  The question is not, “What is the data?” The question is, “Will we act?”

Monday, April 6, 2020

Coronavirus: True or false: "We're all in this together"?

A perspective on the pandemic written by Robert Fullilove III and Mindy Thompson Fullilove, April 6, 2020. 

There is a growing contemporary debate about the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.  Some contend, “We are all in this together.”  Others argue that we are not all in this together because "Some of us face much greater suffering.”  We turned to the rules of logic to understand the relationship between these ostensibly contradictory propositions.  We would argue that, because both propositions are true, this is not a contradiction but an antinomy. An antinomy occurs when two ostensibly opposing, even contradictory, arguments are held to be both valid and true (valid meaning that the argument’s conclusions have been generated correctly and true meaning that the conclusion describes the true and correct state of the world). For example, the expression, “There is no absolute truth,” is a statement that appears to assert an absolute truth – mainly that there is no such thing – but is itself presented as an absolute truth (“It is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.”)

Let us examine the two propositions to see if, indeed, they are each valid and true.  We are all in this together, we would assert, because of two facts: that wealth, fame, good fortune will not spare anyone the impact of this virus and that we will not get out of this horrific situation without solidarity. If only the poor and disadvantaged were being slammed, if the cases of the novel coronavirus were only in impoverished and medically underserved communities, the notion that we are all in this together would seem sharply and obviously false. But the headlines belie this notion. If the prime minister of the United Kingdom, one of the most powerful men on the planet, can be infected and even hospitalized, it is evident that the power of his office did not spare him the ravages of this virus.  At present, our efforts need to be in solidarity with everyone who has been sickened and is at mortal risk from Covid-19. To support efforts to combat this virus wherever it exists, here or overseas, is to express the will to fight together, not just from the confines of our own communities, to assure that we have a future worth living for. The rules for social isolation have to be followed and demanding a cogent national response from the president on down are all responsibilities that each of us must shoulder. A cogent collective response means that the places that have been hardest hit become our top priority and committing ourselves as a nation to do what we must to prevent a future tragedy of this dimension becomes our mutual responsibility.

Now let us examine the second proposition that “Some of us face much greater suffering.” There is no question that Covid-19 mortality follows the fault lines of all societies, not just ours. Several synergistic factors raise the risk of morbidity and mortality for the poor and people of color:  their higher rates of existing chronic conditions which exacerbate the risk of death from Covid-19; the likelihood of living in crowded conditions; the disproportionate employment in high risk jobs; and the lack of access to preventive measures.  The failure to have a rational, early response to this pandemic that would have provided high levels of testing, isolation of those who are ill, and contact tracing – indeed, the failure to rush aid of all kinds to the most vulnerable – is particularly significant in such settings because much of this illness and mortality might have been prevented.

Thus, we have established that both propositions are valid and true. How does thinking of this issue as an antinomy help us to confronting the pandemic? Too much of what is occurring in the discourse about this pandemic is engaged in trying to affix blame. But we need to be clear: naming those who have failed us in this battle is not a cure. It will not save a life today that is currently at enormous risk from this virus. We must be about a united response in which we allocate treatment and prevention resources rationally. Such an approach will obviously assist to lessen the impact in communities that are especially hard hit by this pandemic. And we all need to be clear that we face an enduring and ongoing struggle to resist and attack the evils of American Jim Crow capitalism which has created the vulnerabilities that Covid-19 is exploiting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Coronavirus: This new togetherness

My friend Cynthia texted me that she was walking her dog and I texted back that I was walking myself.  She texted back, "We are alone but together!"  Which reminded me of Robert Frost's poem, "Tuft of Flowers," which ends with the lines, "All men work together... whether they work together or apart."

It was three blocks further in my neighborhood walk when I saw this door:

I stopped to read the sign:

I really appreciated the message, in the face of the grim news from the Centers for Disease Control that, at a minimum, they expect 100,000 deaths from coronavirus.  A friend in Britain texted that the death rate had risen 50% overnight.  At-risk workers are going on strike for protection.  And the New York Times reported on the weaknesses in our national supply chain of food.  

If only that were all.  Another friend asked, "When were the fires in Australia?" 

We pondered that for a minute, and I wanted to say, "Last summer," but it was only two months ago.  Years ago, I defined "root shock" as losing all or part of one's emotional ecosystem.  I would include "climate change" as a process that, in changing the ecosystem of the world, has caused all of us root shock.  Coronavirus comes on top of the stern confrontation with climate change that we had when the continent of Australia was burning and a billion animals died.  This series of massive upheavals fits with what I have called "serial forced displacement," a repeated ripping apart of communities and ways of life.  The psychological ramifications are powerful: we are disoriented, disconnected and stripped of the part of our identity that came from knowing our place in the world.  

In such moments we are open to fears but also to new truths.  I feel hit over the head with all these realities, which are stripping away my illusions and pretenses and myths, until I see the sparkling atoms that spin in and around us in webs of connection I have only just begun to imagine. I used to ask my class in Urban Space and Health, "Who is more important to city, the bus driver or the doctor?"  Trick question, of course, as they are equally important, but my students would routinely fall into the trap and say, "Doctor."  And as a person who lusted to go to medical school so that I would be important, I must say I have spent a good bit of my life climbing out of that hole, slowly learning to see the dance of the universe.  

However far I had gotten on that journey to ecological consciousness, this moment in history has shoved me forward.  The poet Mary Oliver spoke to what this series of events -- these displacements from the known universe -- is opening for me and perhaps to all of us:
“I tell you this 
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”
If my heart is open to the world, then I can see and show that I stand with us all.  People have been proclaiming their solidarity in myriad ways, but I plan to follow the lead of my neighbor: I'm going to make a big sign that says, "We're all in this together," and put it on my door.