Covid Gramps and the Arrogant Millennial
An overweight, out of shape young man is jogging. He stops and sweats all over the sidewalk on an uphill stretch of Edgecombe Avenue in Washington Heights. He wears no mask and shows no concern for this busy stretch of pavement, where other old masked men like me have escaped our lockdown for a walk, in hopes of unlocking housebound muscles.
I pass and I hold my tongue, but when I hear him panting up from behind, I turn, stretch my arms out and yell, “If you’re not going to cover up at least keep your distance.” He ignores me and chugs right past. “Arrogant fucking millennial,” I send his way but soon regret it—not because he stops and sends me back an exaggerated unmasked cough, and follows that up with, “I hope you die Gramps!”
It’s not his fault he doesn’t know that I’m in recovery and may or may not be immune to the Covid bug that hopped, skipped, and jumped its way down 162nd Street to bite my 65-year-old ass. No, I regret my comment only because my temper got the best of me. When he turned to jog away I hit out again, this time going even lower: “Your parents must be very proud of you.” I should have known better. My mother once told me to never forget how easy it is to raise someone else’s kids. She was right. I’m sure his parents did the best they could. That he turned out to be a self-centered ass isn’t their fault.
The Good the Bad and the Hopeful
The Covid pandemic has proven the existence of the ‘Law of Unexpected Consequences.’ A fractured health care system, and the limitations that ‘State Rights’ put on a united front when the health and financial well-being of the nation is shattered, speaks to the negative side of this. As for the race- and income-related inequities and inequalities, it just took Covid to rip the scab off that permanently festering wound.
I’m a student of the Dave Chappelle ‘School of American Government.’ Chappelle, a great Comedian, said he was prepared to give Trump a chance, but when pressed to comment on how that chance was playing out, he told us to think of the President like “a bad DJ at a good party.” The party would go on even if the music was out of tune. A better DJ would eventually come along.
Chappelle brings me to the hopeful or positive aspect of the unexpected pandemic consequences. I believe America is finally ready to address its systemic race issue, and because of President Trump, I’m also hoping that it will come to its senses about health care. I’d like to see the US live up to its republican free enterprise principles by allowing inter-state competition in health insurance, which, if you didn’t already know, has been illegal. Instead of healthy market competition in the insurance market place, we have 50 separate health insurance regulators and the ‘mini’ Blue Crosses they’ve spawned. They’ve distorted the private insurance market under the guise of ‘states rights’, and in the process they’ve killed any chance of achieving free market efficiency and lower costs—something which America has always been good at, and which I, the son of a car salesman and an Avon Lady, have long admired.
I see two more proven and unexpected positive outcomes of Covid. First, it has shown us the importance of an affordable internet ‘utility’ to deliver Education and Health Care. Second, it exposed the problems with policing. Communication technology might seem like it’s tearing us apart at times, but in the past few months it has demonstrated how critical it is for spotlighting serious issues and bringing us together. The most obvious example of this is the 7 PM salute to the health care warriors. Another day of sirens, death, and displacement could be weathered by clapping, singing, or, in my case, whistling along with my neighbors. We could see that we weren’t alone, and we were all very thankful that there were people willingly to put their lives on the line for us.
The most personal and positive of unexpected consequences arrived for me on the morning of June 3, when we hit a long overdue milestone. It was the first day that not a single soul perished from Covid in New York City. I was so happy that I cried. It didn’t matter that this was likely due to dropping testosterone levels in a senior male, or the fatigue from fighting the virus, or simply an overreaction on the part of a sentimental fool; the fact is, I’d never before cried from joy. More importantly, there couldn’t have been a better time to experience this confusing and exhilarating emotion. Besides, I had plenty of reason to feel happy. We would be leaving on our recovery road trip the next day.
June 5 – 12
Cruising Covid America
The Divided Counties of America was no more than an abstract media image until we started driving through them…We drove through Pennsylvania…, then through Ohio where the ever-so-efficient ‘Turnpike Travel Plazas’ had been turned into reluctant pit stops for gas. Green ‘Go’ Day was a fever dream that ended at the Pennsylvania border. No man may be an island, but it seemed that every county in every state we passed through had become a fiefdom. No interstate standards meant no guarantee of safety. The Covid virus could cross county lines even easier than we could.
We spent the next two nights in South Bend, Indiana, which felt like middle precautionary ground. There was lots of social distancing, lots of signage telling everyone what to expect and what to do, but with so few people around that I started to wonder why they bothered. We did find a restaurant that struck the right tone, by which I mean that it had servers who didn’t remove their masks to talk, and used only online terminals to place our orders— foregoing the need for menus or credit card germ swapping. The restaurant had attracted enough newly masked bodies to make me think that the old hospitality model had a chance of surviving.
The murder of George Floyd, caught up to us in South Bend. It had been almost a week since the waves of anti-racism action had begun to roll across the country. A sole ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner was waved from the bridge on Colfax Street, where the quietest and politest protest in America marched past our hotel.
Things would be neither quiet nor polite by the time we made it to Minneapolis. First we skirted Chicago and cruised through Wisconsin, stopping only to buy a box of Leidenkugel Pilsner, which I love but still couldn’t drink. There wasn’t a mask in sight, and it was the first time since we’d left New York that our insistence on wearing one ran into the politics it appeared to go against. I was told by the cashier, “You don’t have to wear that in here,” which sounded more like take that damn thing off you liberal snowflake. When I told the owner that I was recovering from Covid he stepped back and instinctively covered his face with his hand.“A mask works better than your fingers,” I said and laughed. He didn’t find it funny.
Minneapolis Burning had become Minneapolis Numb by the time we arrived. Sheets of plywood covered the downtown business core, and it was deserted by 5:30 in the afternoon. I couldn’t even find an open door to check into the newly repurposed factory building hotel in which we intended to spend three nights.
We had hoped to discover the truth behind the tourist hype that Minneapolis is a bicyclist’s heaven—with endless trails around a green and friendly city. What we discovered was a city in mourning. It was mourning the loss of its own innocence, its willful ignorance of the police brutality that had been happening for years within city limits, and the loss of one of its citizens whose life, it appeared, wasn’t worth a counterfeit $20 dollar bill.
George Floyd was laid to rest on Tuesday, June 9. Meanwhile, in Houston, after a week of action and attitude realignment that cut across economic and political boundaries, we walked 20 blocks from our hotel up Chicago Avenue to the storefront where his life was being memorialized, and his death etched in chalk on the sidewalk out front. It took a sadistic 8 minutes and 45 seconds to bring an end to George Floyd’s life, and when it did, 400 years of America’s original sin were brought back to painful life. As we passed the burnt out buildings and smelled the still fresh ashes, we prayed that Minnesota and the rest of the country might finally atone for the indescribable sin that was slavery.
My attachment to Minnesota comes via my wife. Her grandfather had been one of 10,000 Minnesotans of Scandinavian stock who took their pioneering spirit north-west at the turn of the 20th Century. They wanted a shot at the last best prairie, which just happened to be across from Saskatchewan, on the US side of the border between our two countries. This border, 125 years ago, was as seamless as it is today when the snow falls.
We had passed through Minnesota on our way back from Canada the summer before to attend a family reunion in Rush City. It was there that I’d met some of my wife’s staunchly Republican Farmer cousins, many of whom had held their noses and voted for Hillary because they couldn’t tolerate the not-so-Minnesota-Nice Trump. They were even less enthusiastic about him after he’d sacrificed their Chinese market for Soya Beans in a tit-for-tat trade war. It was a market they’d spent generations developing. The fact that they were now being compensated for their loss like “welfare bums,” as one cousin put it, was proof the President has no idea how fiercely proud and independent American farmers are.
There is a sensibility about the people of Minnesota that gave me hope as I watched them, many with children in tow, visit the spot where George Floyd had been killed. If any state can face and fix the scourges of racism and white supremacy, it would be Minnesota. It is in Minnesota that the practice of hot politics meets cool reality. It is where ’cooperative capitalism’ has long flourished, despite it seeming like an anachronism. In Minnesota, as in Saskatchewan, the long, cold, and potentially deadly winter makes it hard to ignore the needs of one’s neighbor or any of the customers one hopes will return when it thaws. Cold hands not only breed warmer hearts—they help ensure healthy revenue growth.
Covid had almost become an afterthought as we walked back to our hotel from the George Floyd memorial. Still, a plague is a plague. The reality of my own lingering symptoms were brought home again. I would spend the next two days trying to regain the strength needed to make it to the Canadian border.
Hives and a rash, Covid’s latest indignity had receded, only to be replaced by the sense of tingling overheated feet, hands, and occasionally my painful ‘canary in the coal mine’ ear. This was not a symptom of Covid, I was assured by my doctor over the phone. It was just another of its inflammatory post-viral effects on my autonomic nervous system.
We approached the closed Canadian American border at Portal, North Dakota, with anticipation and trepidation. We had been assured that even though ‘non-essential’ traffic between the two countries had stopped two months earlier, with a Canadian passport, a place to quarantine for 14 days, and the support of someone who could help feed us, we’d be welcome. My status as a Covid survivor was the unknown factor. How much would the Officer at the Canadian border want to know about that, eh?
There are two lessons about border crossing I wish to impart. These lessons have served me well during a career I had been fortunate to have—one that had been full of international travel. The first is that regardless of the country you’re entering, always be polite to the inspection officer. No problem there: I’m Canadian, and still able to separate a New Yorker’s need for hasty straight talk from my Canuck inclination to be gracious. The second rule is never give more information than you have to. This was the rule I adhered to at 8:02 AM on Saturday, June 13.
First off, the Officer wanted to know if we were prepared to quarantine for two weeks. “Yes Sir. We are.” Would we have access to fresh air and someone to bring us food? “Yes Sir. We did.” Did we have more than 24 cans of beer? “No Sir. We didn’t.” Did we have any cannabis? This question came as a surprise. Cannabis is legal in Canada, but not in North Dakota. The Economist in me couldn’t help but wonder whether Canadians had reason to fear some competition? Regardless, it was a definite “No Sir.” Then came the big one. Did we have a cough or a fever? “No Sir,” I said truthfully. Fortunately, he didn’t ask about tingly lower extremities, ears, rashes or shortness of breath. That was it. No more Covid queries. We were told that once we crossed into Canada we were to stay put in our cottage, not to venture off the property, and not to have anyone else set foot on it.
Finally, the border guard asked, “Did we have any questions?” I did. We might be crossing the border, but we still had nine and half hours of driving north to our quarantine location. “I’m going to need gas at some point,” I said. “How do I manage that?” Pay at the pump he told me. “So what if I have to pee?” I could feel my wife cringe, but the Officer didn’t seem surprised by the question or my resurfaced New York bluntness. “Wear your mask,” he told me. “Do your business quick and observe social distancing rules.”
I would choose a copse of trees to pull into an hour later rather than risk a restroom encounter. I only had to social distance myself from some Crows that seemed to delight in mocking me.
June 13th – June 27th
I had 14 days to contemplate 14 weeks as a Covedite, and I watched in horror from our Saskatchewan isolation at the virus denial still raging south of the Canadian-US border. I also did my share of praying that the hard won battle ground of New York would hold. Still, I couldn’t help but take pleasure in the fact that Floridians were being shunned if they decided to seek safety up north. Covid Karma is a bitch dude!
The Covid recovery road trip took us through nine states, and in each one I got the sense that the majority of Americans have great respect for science. Given a leadership that respects that belief, they’d be more than willing to sacrifice, at least in the short term, for the greater good. What greater good can there be than the health of “We the People.”
The Founding Fathers had managed to cast aside their self-interest 234 years earlier, so why was this proving to be such a big deal today. If they could agree on the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while being killed by the British, why can’t we come to this sort of collective wisdom during a pandemic that has already killed nearly two hundred thousand?
The Founders must have also known that in the long run, self-sacrifice without equality is a fool’s game. Lincoln certainly did and he rose to the challenge by abolishing slavery. It has been 157 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, yet his belief that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” is just as applicable to the economic and healthcare inequities of today as it was to the scourge of slavery then.
Lincoln didn’t claim that perfect equality was achievable, and he certainly didn’t foresee the threat Covid would pose to a United ‘house’ of America; but he did see the need to commit to the idea of equality as essential to creating what the Constitution terms “a more perfect union.” The Union must, he said, “become all one thing, or all the other,” to be truly free. On this guiding principle, Lincoln declared, there can be no partisan dispute and no bipartisan compromise. This is a principle he would have easily applied to a disease that poses a similar threat to the life and freedom of us all.
The 4th of July
Vive le Camus
Independence Day arrived, and with it, endless analysis of the impact of Covid on America’s God-given liberties. Like many, I’ve sought the insight of those wiser than myself on how best to hold tight to my individual freedoms without sacrificing the common good. To date, the most perceptive insight I’ve come across is an essay by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Review of Books. Fortunately, its awkwardly long title, “Coronavirus Notebook; Finding Solace and Connection in Classic Books,” speaks simply and eloquently about the importance of fiction to our understanding of a non-fictional crisis like the pandemic of 2020.
“In times of crisis,” Ms. Michiko K says, “literature provides historical empathy and perspective, breaking through the isolation we feel, hunkered down in our homes. [It] connect us, across time zones and centuries, with others who once lived through not dissimilar events.” Her survey of the works of great writers who exemplified this led me to Albert Camus and the book he published in 1947, entitled “The Plague,” which he based on French pandemics of the previous century. It provides testament to individuals like the novel’s narrator, Dr. Rieux, who risks his life to tend to victims, and sees nothing heroic about his work. It’s simply, he says, “a matter of common decency.”
Dr. Rieux, unlike the President, identified with victims of the plague: “There was not one of their anxieties in which he did not share, no predicament of theirs that was not his.” And he knew that the “essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying.”
Camus, Cuomo, and the Queen have helped me summon the courage I needed to accept life in the pandemic petri dish that was New York City, and live with the unknown long-term consequences of the disease. They also gave me the determination to confront those who lack the sensibility of New Yorkers who’ve survived Covid, and are not shy about calling out those who believe their right to stupidity is equal to my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a N95 mask, if not always happiness.
The Covid Plague of 2020, like the French plagues of the past, has a lot to teach us. This includes the need to be especially worried about those in positions of power, like Dr. Richard, the head of the local medical association in the Camus novel, who is slow to recommend any action to combat the disease for fear of public alarm. He doesn’t want to admit the disease is a plague, referring to it instead as a “special type of fever.” Does this remind you of anyone?
Camus is not specific about the controversy over testing in his 1947 novel, but I’m sure that his Dr. Richard would have done everything he could have to ignore the rising numbers, just as the President has. They wouldn’t make him look good, and what’s more important than appearances? Thank God for Dr. Rioux of Camus’ fiction and his non-fictional counterpart, Dr. Fauci.
The Covid Plague has taught me two very different truths, which Michenko K’s brilliant analysis strikes me as possible, regardless of how contradictory they might seem. Foremost is the understanding that we must remain ever vigilant, because the plague bacillus, like the poison of fascism or its systemic cousin racism, “never dies or disappears.” Yet, we must just as strongly hold on to the optimistic belief that “what we learn in the time of pestilence” is that “there are more things to admire in man than to despise.”
I just wish I could raise a glass of beer and drink to that.
Covid Vigilantes – Canadian Style
There’s no denying the splendor of a social distanced Covid recovery in a Canadian National Park. There’s also no denying the weirdness that is a hallmark of the disease, and of 2020 itself. Watching ice hockey playoffs at 10AM on a beautiful August morning is the least of it.
Canadians haven’t exactly welcomed any stray Americans who’ve found their way into their country via a loophole allowing them to pass through to Alaska. The RCMP have even had to tell people to stop calling in to report cars with American license plates like ours. I’ve kept a Canadian flag windsock waving above the driveway where our car is parked and I’ve taken to writing ‘Canadians’ in the dust collected on the back window of the car just in case someone decides to run their keys down the car frame, which has been known to happen.
There’s no lack of dust on the grid roads of Saskatchewan, and no shortage of rednecks either. One, we’ll call him Boater Bob, pulled up behind me in his truck hauling his fishing boat. When he spotted my plates he did his best to cut me off as he passed, flashed his middle finger and mouthed obscenities our way before leaving us in his wake. If that’s how he reacted to the license plates, I thought, what would he have done if he knew I was a ‘Covedite’.
Canadians are smug about their country’s Covid response when they compare it to that of their American cousins, which they do a lot. Not so smug are the 400,000 Snowbird Canucks with real estate south of the border, who are facing the fact they may not be able to escape the butt-numbing polar reality of winter this year. I’ve had to remind more than one self-righteous friend that when it comes to Covid, Canada has the natural advantage of fewer people and more land. It’s a lot easier to isolate in a moose pasture than in a concrete jungle.
Still, Canada has performed better at critical moments. In the early stages of the pandemic, it was able to ramp up testing more quickly, enabling it to better isolate the sick, trace contacts, and limit the spread. A single-payer healthcare system makes it easier to allocate protective equipment and emergency services. The country is less divided and more disciplined, and its politicians have largely set aside partisan grievances for a ‘Team Canada’ effort.
Canadians have often been accused of being humble to the point of boring, but in 2020 it’s a definite advantage. ‘Sorry eh’ is the dull bromide of Canadian speech, but it provides a natural defense against Covid. No one wants to be the ‘Super Spreader’ identified as Grandma’s killer.
A Four Month Covidaversary
This Covid recovery road trip has been a long haul on two fronts. We’ve traveled 3,563 Canadian kilometers—that is 2,213 American miles—between homes on either side of the border, and the ‘long haul’ of the Covid recovery itself has proven to be more gruelling and much lonelier up here than I expected. I know no one else who has had the disease, and I’ve become the cautionary case in point for my friends and family. I appreciate their concern, but there’s only so much self-centered whining that anyone who hasn’t been hit by Covid wants or needs to hear.
It would have been easier to find the sympathetic ear of a fellow sufferer in our Manhattan zip code, where, according to a City of New York Health Department study, 33% of the residents have antibodies. This means that on 162nd Street, one in three people have been infected, whereas in our Saskatchewan place of isolation, only one in seven hundred and eighteen people have had Covid.
Fortunately, I’ve found some support at Covid Long Haul Fighters Unite, a Facebook group where you can compare your ongoing symptoms, count your relative blessings, and convince yourself that you’re not crazy. Regardless, there are thousands like myself seeking reassurance on the site. There are definitely some psychosomatics in this group and others who have tested positive, and are finding that Covid is a convenient excuse to blame everything that’s wrong with them on the virus. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cause hangnails, but that’s about the only thing I’m convinced of when it comes to our post-viral syndrome status. It turns out, I’m not the only one to have inflamed Covid ears, tingling toes, and legs that seem to rendezvous most nights between 2 and 4 AM. And when I asked whether anyone else finds that alcohol sets off their symptoms, I had dozens of positive responses within a few hours.
Misery indeed loves company on Facebook, but if truth be told, I’ve had some miserable days. SOB, Covidien shorthand for ‘shortness of breath’, is truly a SOB. The chest tightness made me question the health of my heart, and brought me as close as my bloody ear to seeking medical attention. Good and bad lung days are the touchstones of my existence now. However, the balance of days is on the plus side; there are definitely more good days than bad.
I’ve done my best to put some humor into my overnight ‘Tingly Toe’ report to my wife, but it’s said that the clown hides his tears. Jim Carrey, the Canadian Clown, provides ample proof of that. He wrote a book, Memoirs and Misinformation, which I read while in Covid quarantine.
It’s the uncertainty of it all that seems to get to me—to us—if I’ve been reading the postings of my fellow ‘Long Haul Fighters’ correctly. Had this virus been Mono or Hep C, at least we’d know what we’re in for, what might be prescribed, and how we might fare in the long run. But Covid is a daily revelation of yet-to-be-experienced misery for many.
There’s simply no guarantee that if we are lucky enough to make it to our one year ‘Covidaversaries’, we won’t wake up to discover that our ‘tingly toes’ or inflamed ears have fallen off. This uncertainty, as irrational as it might seem, is compounded by the guilt of self-pity. I should be grateful for every minute of every day. Like anyone who lived through New York’s hellish Covid Spring, I have to remind myself just how very, very, very lucky I am to be alive.
I’m also definitely thankful to have spent my summer outside of the United States, although it’s been painful to watch from a distance. It’s a bit like seeing a friend give into alcoholism—circling life’s garburator in the mistaken belief that it won’t hurt too much when he or she hits the drain.
Home is where the C Train Stops
Margaret Atwood says that every Canadian has a complicated relationship with the United States, while Americans only think of Canada as the place the weather comes from. Still, when it comes to the cross-border relationship in this Covid year, it’s not the least bit complicated. Eighty-one percent of Canadians want the border between our countries to stay closed, and for most Americans, weather is the least of their worries. However, for us, both weather and a complicated relationship with America are at issue.
Our children want us to stay put in Canada, where the Bull Elk are starting to bugle, signaling a willingness to tear apart any challengers for their pick of the ‘rutting’ season harem. Frosty breath over a Labor (Labour) Day barbecue is the cool whisper of six months of winter to come. Still, our NY roots and responsibilities, left to simmer in summer pestilence, are calling.
New York City, which was the epicenter of hell on earth (with 24,000 dead, 230,000 infected), seems pretty heavenly now. Mask wearing is a fact of life. Outdoor dining, streets closed to traffic, and more bike paths look like they could become a permanent fixture—at least until winter blows in on an Alberta Clipper or a Saskatchewan Snowstorm. The tourist hordes are missing, and my wife says she looks forward to walking into the reopened Met and MoMA without having to fight past them.
The car is loaded and the route planned. We’ll rendezvous with family in Ontario for an early Christmas gathering. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment that I don’t want to miss, and a list of questions the length of my arm to ask. The Covid recovery isn’t over but the road trip will soon be….
What awaits us in America, besides the reality of Covid, is a surreal electoral season we have no say in, other than to do our utmost to get people out to vote, in hopes that America will regain its welcoming heart and the “you can achieve anything” spirit I’ve long admired. It’s been said that Canadians value equality more than Americans, who put their freedom above anything else. I don’t see why they should be mutually exclusive. Why else would the preamble to the constitution ask that ‘We the People’ create ‘a more perfect union’? Surely, this should be a union that will ensure freedom, enshrine equality, and encourage a renewed effort to make the United States a beacon for those of us who value all lives, all liberties, and all people’s right to pursue their own version of happiness.
Return to Journal
Gary Fowlie is a Technology Economist and Consultant. He is on the Advisory boards of ID2020, a non-governmental agency that is working toward secure digital identities for all and of ‘Geeks Without Frontiers’, which brings emergency telecommunication services to disaster relief efforts. Gary was formerly the United Nations Representative in New York for the UN specialized agency, the International Telecommunication Union. He led an inter-agency UN effort to ensure information and communication technologies were recognized in the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. Previously, he served as Chief of Media Liaison for the United Nations in New York and was responsible for communications and advocacy for the UN World Summit on the Information Society.