Dispatches from a Pandemic

Play this Song: This is the End, The Doors
Make this Drink: Negroni (to my friends suffering in Italy): Campari, vermouth, gin.
Now read

When traveling to intriguing places I enjoy writing real-time observations of the trip in short dispatches. My much-loved San Francisco is a guaranteed source of fascinating discoveries – always – and I’ve recorded them often in my Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom. When in Beirut last October I chronicled the fall of a government and pulse of the streets with a short series.

For this journey I’m at home – for an extended lockdown in France – and again facing an intriguing moment. We’re all facing moments of the unknown now. I am writing observations on a frequent basis for the next few weeks, mostly short, to provoke readers to share your own experiences. It is a healthy outlet in an unhealthy situation. … And if I don’t find something creative to vent my energy things could soon get ugly for the cat.

I’m posting these dispatches in a bubble-down system, latest essays posted at the top.

Witness to a Punctuated Equilibrium
(or How 1 Simple Virus Changed 1 Big World Forever)

A landmark study on evolutionary biology was published in 1972 positing that Darwin was wrong about 1 big thing: Many species – particularly those in isolation – do not evolve slowly and gradually over long evolutionary periods. Rather, many species attain an order of invariable statis that extends over many eons until a single climatic event forces rapid transformations in their biological properties. This theory was called punctuated equilibrium.

We may bear witness to a period of punctuated equilibrium now; not biological, but behavioral. The catalytic event, of course, is the coronavirus.

If you were born in the 20th century you mostly likely adhere to the concepts of self-reliance, consumerism, egoism, and the pursuit of economic prosperity. One could argue that these traits are uniquely American. I would reflect that while they are truly American, most societies have tilted in the direction of open markets, wealth, and consumption as the enabler and primary measures of success (and happiness) in life. Capitalism won, communism lost, now go live it up.

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors
spread like viruses do.
Malcolm Gladwell, from “The Tipping Point”

Covid-19 is a climactic event causing sudden changes in our routines and habits. We can’t work, can’t spend, are asked to consider the welfare of others, and now rely on government direction and support. Will it also portend a sea change in our lifestyles and measures of happiness?

Prophesies (getting back to my biblical theme) are the works of wiser women and men than me, but this I have seen in the past 3 weeks:

  • Family and friends are getting more of our personal time. We are more aware of those relationships that truly matter (but too often consigned to when-I-get-the-time status) and connecting with Zoom calls regularly. The focus is a bit less on me, a bit more on us. That is a good thing.
  • Work is going virtual. My teaching at INSEAD and the IAU has gone online, and the many of us that can continue to work are getting it done outside the office. This trend is causing a stronger adoption of collaborative tools and investor interest in the companies that invent them. Better work-life balance and fewer cars on the road, and I believe a higher productivity per hour. These are good things.
  • Artists are creating content and sharing freely. Musicians –
    Chris Martin of Coldplay

    megastars and the lesser known – are holding concerts from their living rooms (check out the NPR list), painters and photographers are giving tips from their home ateliers, and everyone is taking a break from monetizing their art (which is the great destroyer of brave origination). This is a good thing.

  • The air is clearer. Cars are parked and planes are grounded. Mother earth is getting a sudden reprieve from the CO2 infusion. There is a growing awareness that at least from an ecological perspective, … this is a good thing.

Are these observations sustainable trends or temporary anomalies in our practices and priorities? It is too early to tell, but I’m rooting for possibility #1.  I’d love to hear about the positive changes you are adopting or observing in your part of the quarantined world.

As always, stay healthy.
April 4, 2020

People Get Ready

People get ready
There’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board

There is little good news out there. The fever seems to have broken in certain parts of Asia, but everyone is holding their collective breath. Italy continues its descent into hell, with Spain at its deadly heels. The rest of Europe is existing along a spectrum from the unnerving quiet-before-the-storm (Sweden) to full-on war footing (France). The US appears to be gliding along a rudderless spectrum of its own frightening path.

So what to do?

These days of plagues and pestilence have the feel of a biblical moment, whether your book is the Bible, Torah, Quran, or Mother Jones. I’d like to think that there’s a train a coming, rather than the death cart from the Black Plague. You’re probably going to be fine, … but just in case there is something to this rapture stuff, it might be wise to get your books in order, regardless of whether there is a golden ticket with your name on it or not.

There are the obvious steps, like preparing a will and naming an executor. But that’s a morose undertaking for times that are already plenty dark. I will suggest 5 more rewarding, but equally important, assignments that you can start while quarantined at home:

  • Prepare your top 10 list. These are the songs you want played at your funeral, wake, or rapture. My kids think I’m out of my mind when I bring this up. But are you ready to accept someone else choosing the music that will frame your life and set the tone for your remembrance? I sure as hell don’t and always keep my list updated. It’s a fun reminder of the artists I loved and the music that has so moved me. I won’t share my list here, but the drum cadence that kicks off the party when the doors close and the pews are full will be Don’t Worry Baby, the Beach Boys. Get your list together now.
  • Read great books. Most of us love to read and find so little time to do it. When I review lists of the best writers or top literature, I’m amazed at how poorly read I am. Blame it on the American public education system. French teens are pouring through Flaubert and Zola. In the past 2 years I’ve started a new regime of mixing one piece of respected literature for each piece of pulp I find entertaining. I like this list compiled by the New York Times, but google around and you’ll find plenty of other rankings. Start reading now.
  • Listen to great music. When it comes to music, ditto to the previous bullet. How many times has someone mentioned a band or song and you think, now I haven’t listened to them or that album in a long, long time? There are some artists that need to be heard or your life isn’t complete. Right? Can you pass through the pearlies without having been haunted by Schubert’s Ave Maria or mystified by the Beatles A Day in the Life? Your list will depend on what you love, be it the classics, or jazz, or perhaps African funk or rap. Spotify makes it effortless. If rock is your thing then a good place to start is Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s a bit dated (2003), so you can throw in your own favorites from the past few years. Start listening now.
  • Plan your travel. With the beast at our doorsteps, our days, months, or years left to explore may be more limited than previously assumed. Review your bucket list of destinations now, while sitting at home bored, and make a loose calendar of when and where to go. Maybe your interests are international and exotic, or perhaps more local or regional. There is no magic list. When prodded about taking a trip to some far off destination my dad used to respond, why would I want to go there when I haven’t been out to the western corner of Perry County in years? Everyone has their own horizons. Start planning yours now.
  • Cover your love list. Most of us are negligent at letting our loved ones know that they fall into that category. We often put off telling those people most important in our lives that we love them until it’s too late. It’s a good time to make calls or write letters. Sorry, but emails don’t pass the emotional grade. If you are uneasy with being emotionally open it is enough to just get in touch. They will appreciate the effort and know that is comes from a very warm place. Who’s on your list? Make it now and get started.

Okay, these should keep you busy as the next wine bottle is popped. As always, stay healthy.
March 25, 2020 

 

We are the Corona Generation

If you are reading this post then you are officially part of the Corona Generation. It will impact how you comport yourself and mingle with others for the rest of your life. It will help define us as a global cohort for future historians, although that definition – what it means to be part of Generation C – won’t be fully etched and understood for years to come.

My parents were part of the Great Depression Generation and it marked them for life. They weren’t miserly, but clearly tight and selective with their spending.

As an example, our summer family vacation was spent in Ocean City, Maryland each July. One of my most pleasurable and vivid life memories is that drive down Highway 50 leading to the Atlantic seaboard. The roused anticipation at the first sight of billboards advertising beachside hotels and seafood restaurants. The briny smell of the ocean wafting through the rolled-down car windows as we got within perhaps 20-30 miles of town.

The Surfside 8 Motel, Ocean City, Maryland

We always stayed at the Surfside 8 Motel on 8th Street. It was a fantastic central location for kids: turn left out of the parking lot and it was 3 flipflop blocks to the amazing boardwalk and beach. Two blocks to the right led to the 9th Street pier on the bay, where I would fish every afternoon with a bait box full of frozen squid or blood worms.

Our small efficiency apartment at the motel had a single bedroom with 2 queen beds, so my 3 sisters and mother commandeered that luxury space. My brother and dad took the pullout sofa and I, being the youngest and smallest, camped out on a rollaway cot. The official room limit was 6, so upon arriving in town I would be booted from the car about a block short of the parking lot and told to generally loiter for 30 minutes. And then I could meander confidently onto the property and someone on the balcony would discretely wave me in.

See what I mean? Tight.

How will the Corona Generation be marked by our common experience? Who knows truly? Obviously, a heightened attention to hygiene is being instilled into everyone now. Wash those hands and wipe down the counters. If this scare passed in a month or two it wouldn’t have time to take root in our psyche, but it’s not going to pass quickly and its going to take a toll on people we know and deeply care about. A vaccine is at least a year out and even if effective treatments are uncovered before then, it’s ability to turn lives upside down is going to keep us on edge and vigilant for a long, long time.

I’m an eternal optimist – please forgive me that – but I believe that the social distancing being forced on us now will bring us closer in the end. Board games may make a comeback, a return to touchstones of deep connection like letter writing and regular telephone calls, and we’ll be looking in on our neighbors and loved ones more regularly.

What changes to our routines and behaviours do you imagine – good or bad – as a result of this extended homebound interlude? The Great Depression was a horrific nightmare for families who struggled through, but left most of them stronger and more appreciative of authentic happiness as a result. This is our challenge now.

Stay healthy.
March 21, 2020

 

A Bit of Context, Please

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. … Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.”
– Alia, 7 years old, on fleeing her home in Aleppo, Syria.(Source: the Italian NGO Gruppo Aleimar.)

“They killed all the men, they raped all the women, they stole all our wealth. I don’t know what more they can take from us. They kidnapped nearly all of us (in my village), and killed all but 16 men. Children between 12 and 17 were sent to institutes (to be trained for fighting) and those under 12 stayed with their families. Many women were taken as sex slaves in captivity. In other areas, Yazidi males were forced to convert to Islam and if they refused they were killed.
– Rozina, a 22 year old Yazidi woman, recounting her escape from ISIS captivity after her mother, father, and 2 brothers were killed. (Source: Global Fund for Women.)

I made my escape down 7 rue Manuel this morning to the open air markets of Aix-en-Provence. Subdued would be a good word for the pulse of the plaza, with about half of the merchant stalls typically crammed into beautiful Place des Prêcheurs on a Thursday morning missing. But I was still in a land of plenty as I made my rounds, picking up green olives in garlic and basil and a beautiful block of aged cows milk cheese for my apéro late afternoon, 2 pork chops and a dozen spears of fresh asparagus for dinner (just coming into season now). The vegetable and fruits options remained bountiful, bronze chickens were crackling on their roasting racks, the poissonnieres still offering life from the sea of every sort and size.

I’ve never been so happy to linger in a line, soaking up the Provence sun and enjoying a short moment of a beautiful day that will be enjoyed mostly from my apartment window, in my airy 17th century flat with its impossibly high ceilings and terra cotta floor tiles colored in the sun burnt ocre of Provence clay. The internet is working, Netflix options are endless, my piano and guitars at the ready to ward off boredom. When I turn the tap I get fresh potable water, and hot when I want it to be. The fridge is keeping things cold. My bed is comfortable and the comforter clean and warm.

This virus is disrupting our lives and may get really frightening. Some of us will get sick and people we know may die. But let’s try to keep it all in context, okay?

Stay healthy, stay safe.
– March 19, 2020

One Sure Bet
(or, Where to Invest in Days of Plagues and Pestilence)

Before him went the pestilence,
and burning fever went forth at his feet.
Habakkuk 3:5

It’s mid-March and Covid-19 is sweeping the globe like a ravenous swarm of desert locusts. In the Horn of Africa billions of the real thing are turning day into night and leaving a trail of destruction unseen since the days of Moses.

Just across the Red Sea the world of oil is going bonkers as Saudi Arabia and Russia get into a Mexican standoff over production limits. Crude oil prices fell 30% in the course of just one morning recently, and are at their lowest levels in almost 20 years.

We still have the fire season to look forward and the US just experienced its warmest winter months since 1895. All this and more, to quote a 1977 punk epic from the Dead Boys.

Stock markets hate nothing more than uncertainty. It’s no surprise then that the indexes are lurching severely, plunging down one day and roaring back the next, sometimes over 10% in a single session. So where does one invest in times of plagues and pestilence, when all that is certain is that uncertainty will reign?

You are the best investment to be made in times of uncertainty. The asset of YOU (not a bad market ticker) and its condition are 100% under your control, and you suddenly have a lot of time to focus on enhancements. For starters think about your health, and that comes in 2 flavors. So here are some tips from Bill.

Physical health:

  • Work out. Find a regime today that fits your interest and home situation and do it regularly. I have a small apartment so a mix of yoga, an exercise wheel, and 2 dumbbells are all that’s possible but needed really to keep me in form, .. despite my beer tab. Toss in a daily walk or run if allowed out of the building. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
  • Eat well. With restaurants shut down it’s a great time to brush up on your kitchen confidence. Focus on seasonal recipes with locally-sourced ingredients and you can’t go wrong health-wise. And the cooking sacrament is a great stress reliever, so excellent for your mental health as well.

Emotional health:

  • Write: Few things feed the soul better than a letter written tenderly to someone you love or greatly appreciate. It’s even more enjoyable with a good fountain pen in hand, scribbling on high quality parchment paper. I’m blessed to be in France, where boutiques – papeteries – focus exclusively on the materials for this dying art. It’s all on Amazon as well.
  • Read: Now is the time to tackle that book stack that’s been growing by your bedside, or start building a new one. By the fireplace or propped against your pillows, is there anything more relaxing, … and more nourishing? I’m a supporter of the local bookstore, but in a crunch you have online options.
  • Pamper: Your budget has suddenly eased up on luxuries like restaurant tabs, bar bills, and travel reservations. Why not divulge in a few guilty pleasures with that new found trove? Go on, before the world collapses around us. High-end chocolate and a good bottle of wine are the low-hanging fruit for me. I’m sure you won’t have to think too hard about it.
  • Create: Art is a healthy release valve when bored or feeling anxious. Music, painting, drawing, writing: these are just the obvious possibilities. So many more options exist as well. Lost as to where to find inspiration? Just Google around; the options are endless.
  • Travel: Wait, what? You probably can’t leave town or even your apartment, but you can still explore the world through films, podcasts, and websites. There is an endless array of travel documentaries on Netflix and other streaming media, and this link to museums online has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. Go exploring.
  • Meditate: It’s proven to calm the mind and lower the blood pressure. Again, there are plenty of resources online if you don’t know where to start. Find a zen ritual that is natural for you, and 5-10 minute sessions are enough to get you quickly addicted.

I’m off to the grocery. At least that’s what I’ll tell the gendarmes should I be stopped. The truth is I’m just dying to get out for a bit. Stay healthy and add your own tips for staying sane. À bientôt.

– March 18, 2020

8 Comments

  1. Here in Perry County it’s still quiet. People are staying in, although there isn’t an official lockdown yet. The local grocery stores have instituted a “senior hour” at the beginning of the day, and today I realized that there are quite a few of us who qualify as seniors. It’s the nature of the population here to be on the older curve. I didn’t make it to the Giant store, their hour is from 6:00-7:00 a.m.!!! Fortunately walking is still good exercise and easy to do, so I’ll keep it up as long as possible. Might have to try to do some sort of leash for the cat if we’re told to stay in except when walking animals. Yeah – he’d love that for sure. So, weaving, reading, quilting, knitting – I can keep this up although it’s harder when you must stay alone. Be well.

  2. Great post, Bill! I love all these ideas. I’m actually at the ridge with my Dad right now, so I’m enjoying the yard – both looking at while inside working on the computer and on walks. Some friends have set up a virtual lunch hour every day. Whoever is available and interested can video chat at 1 pm with each other. I also video chatted with 30 (!) people from my theater group tonight. I spent most of that chat on mute, but it was still fun to see such a large number of familiar faces while enjoying a glass of wine!

    1. Fantastic Julie, I saw your Instagram story with the deer below the farm. That so warmed my heart, thank you. Virtual socialising will be le rigueur for the next few months I’m afraid, but at least we have that. Zoom is about to become firmly ingrained in the world lexicon. Stay safe.

  3. Hi Bill,
    It’s a funny thing.. just this morning I was looking for inspiration and ideas to make this quarantine productive. I very much enjoyed reading your article and will use a couple of your tips : cooking and yoga :-). We are so lucky, there’s no war, no food or water shortage. All we have to do is to stay home to keep everyone safe. Most of the people work from home and get paid, it’s a luxury.

    1. That’s the only healthy way to look at it Suzy. I’m sure there are plenty of folks in Yemen or Syrian refugee camps who would give anything for our style of suffering. Stay safe!

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