The old folks

A close friend just got the message we’ve long feared he’d get. His father has tested positive for the virus. He hadn’t been sick: he was tested as a precaution, along with the other residents of the nursing home where he lives. Neither my friend nor his siblings have been able to see him. Instead, he’s going to be transported to a different nursing home within the same system — one outfitted to handle cases of coronavirus. I imagine he’ll be isolated and watched closely. Life in a nursing home is difficult enough as it is. Life in a nursing home during a pandemic has got to be terrifying, and lonely, especially for those who’ve been infected.

Testing positive without symptoms is better than testing positive with a cough and a fever. It’s possible that my friend’s father will never get sick: some people in every group won’t, and that includes elderly people with scary underlying conditions. We don’t know when or how he caught the virus, and we’ll probably never know. There’ve been other cases in the same nursing home, and my friend has been getting automated alerts by text from the care center: 3 people infected with the virus, 0 precious lives lost. Those aren’t illuminating; mostly, they’re just creepy.

In New Jersey, the coronavirus has killed ten thousand people. More than half of those — 5,376, and counting — were residents of long-term care facilities. Over 500 homes have reported infections. The scale of this disaster is breathtaking, but it wasn’t unanticipated. We always knew that senior housing was full of kindling for the blaze. In the middle of February, our friend Amy ventured into the online wilderness to warn whoever she could reach about the need to contain the coronavirus before it reached nursing homes. She blew the whistle until she was red in the face. She was right to sound the alarm. I wish we’d listened better.

Those of us who live in New Jersey are painfully aware that the coronavirus doesn’t skip over younger people. We all know people in the primes of their lives who’ve become seriously sick. But almost eighty per cent of those who’ve died from the virus are over the age of 65 — and getting a public health message to our elders can be a challenge. Many of our friends are up against the steely recalcitrance of parents, and aunts, and uncles, and older friends, some of whom are determined to get their news from dodgy sources. The father of someone close to me recently forwarded her a scare article, straight from a clickbait mill, about the neurological hazards of wearing masks. She wrote back a kind and measured response. She hasn’t heard anything from him since.

I consider myself lucky that my parents have taken this crisis seriously. They live in Chester, a small town on the periphery of the metro, which is a good thing: they’re out of the way of most of the state’s major transportation corridors. They don’t have to go anywhere if they don’t want to. That said, their house is part of a development reserved for those aged 55 and older. Nearly half of the township is over 45. That doesn’t put them in the line of fire, necessarily: part of what people are paying for when they move to places like Morris County is permanent social distance. But when there’s so much virus — and so much misinformation — flying around the Eastern seaboard, it’s hard not to worry. It’s a small relief to know that Hilary’s mother is ensconced in the mountains of Vermont. It becomes less comforting when I think about what she does all day: she’s a nurse in a prison. It’s a tough job that somebody has to do, and I’m grateful that she’s doing it. So far, they haven’t reported any cases there. Keep your fingers crossed.

Time bomb

In my late twenties, I broke a tooth. Second molar from the back on the upper left side— an important one, I’d learn. It’s hard to chew without it. My then-dentist recommended a root canal. About ten years later, my current dentist declared that root canal inexpertly done, and re-did it. By then, I’d sunk a lot of money into that twenty millimeter area of my face.

After the second root canal, I figured that was that: the tooth was dead, sealed, and stuffed with inorganic material. I didn’t realize that the tooth could still be a problem. My last visit to the dentist was an utter disaster — he found problems all over my mouth, once that he felt had been exacerbated by the elevated stress I’d been living with for the prior eighteen months. Right in that same troublesome molar, he found an infection brewing, a black spot on the x-ray where all had been pleasantly white in the days before Hilary’s diagnosis. This, he told me, was a matter of some urgency. He recommended extraction and a dental implant.

Implants are expensive. They also take a long time to finish. First, there’s an extraction, and then a post needs to be cemented in place, and only after you’ve healed from that does the dentist begin to build the new tooth. Hilary has been through it, and so has my mother; if you haven’t had one, I recommend you take preventative measures to avoid getting one. After the dentist caught the infection, I’d resigned myself to joining the club. But for insurance reasons, I didn’t want to do it immediately. I thought that if I held off for a little while, I could time things so that the dental visits could be minimally distracting from the rest of my life. We threw the dice.

Sometimes after an errant roll, the dice are easily retrieved; sometimes they bounce under the washing machine and can’t be picked back up without tearing the house down. Once I was ready to schedule the extraction, I couldn’t. All non-emergency dental procedures were scratched from the planner by the coronavirus. If I’d wanted to push it, I’m sure I could have convinced my dentist to squeeze me in before he ceased daily operations, but then I’d be sitting here in the middle of a pandemic with a hole in my mouth. My desire to undergo lengthy dental procedures — mouth open and throat receptive — during an outbreak of a contagious respiratory illness is about what you’d think it would be. I’d like to avoid getting into that chair for as long as I can, and I suspect my dentist feels the same way. He doesn’t want to trade breaths any more than I do.

It has now been exactly six months since I was told I needed a dental implant. My tooth didn’t hurt on the day I got that x-ray, and it doesn’t hurt now. If it wasn’t for the imaging tools at the dentist’s office, I’d have no idea there was even a problem. Since I haven’t developed any pain or inflammation, I’ve tried to convince myself that I’ve kept the infection in check by brushing and flossing, even though I know there’s no way that it works like that. It’s kind of like how I’ll reflexively wash my hands to protect myself from a virus that may well have already infected me. I don’t think that’s likely, but I didn’t think there was a problem with my root canal tooth, either.

Just writing this post feels like a jinx. But I’ve made it this far without a return trip to the dentist’s chair, and there’s a part of me that’d like to see how much longer I can hold the symptoms of the infection at bay. Semi-consciously, I’ll bet that the bacteria in my jaw is a figure for the virus at large, and if I can suppress the former, that means I’m fit enough to dodge the latter. That’s absurd, and stupidly magical, but so many of my woolier thoughts are. My anxieties, though, are real. Every night since March, I go to bed wondering if I’ll wake up with a fever from the coronavirus, or an abscess in my face that needs an emergency treatment. Every morning, I’ve been reasonably okay. I’ll keep praying for you if you keep praying for me.

A quick story

I dreamed I was at a family gathering. We were indoors, in the New Jersey suburbs, in the den of the house where my cousin lives. This is the cousin who was hospitalized in March, and both of her daughters were there: the one who first contracted the virus at a business conference in Colorado, and her younger sister, who has never been tested, and has never gotten sick. Hilary was with me. Other family members were there, too, but their faces were diffuse; for the purposes of the dream-narrative, they were treated by my unconscious as bystanders. Food covered the kitchen table. People were eating and talking. I remember thinking it was a little stuffy.

A bug on the wall of the kitchen tipped the party straight into chaos. The insect was big and caramel-brown, and it scurried fast. This was the sort of bug that you hate to look at too close, so you squint, and hold your breath, and try not to have your primal fears awakened by the feelers, and the tendrils, and the compound eyes. We all ran into the den. But the younger sister wasn’t afraid of the insect. She leaned over and picked it up. I was happy she did: I didn’t think that squashing it with a shoe was a good idea. She’d bring it over to the window and set it free.

Instead she carried it to the middle of the den and let it go. In a blur of bug-wings, it flew directly at the opposite wall, hovered, dove, and began running fast across the carpeted floor. It was at that moment that I realized I’d broken my glasses. The lens was shattered and one of the arms was bent. I didn’t want Hilary to see. She’d insist on going into Manhattan to get it fixed. I couldn’t run that risk — not with a virus on the loose.

I woke to a very nice day and began working. I had something to write in the morning, and another thing to write in the afternoon, and some additional work arriving in the evening. I tried to set aside dreams and fears. Before the day had gotten any traction, our buzzer rang. Hilary leaned out the window and saw a group of policemen in our small front yard. They’d opened the gate and poured themselves in. At first she thought we must have parked the car in an illegal spot. But they didn’t want us to go outside. They wanted to get inside.

From behind his mask, the biggest policeman shouted up to us. A truck, he said, had backed into one of the wires and torn it from a supporting pole. It either needed to be re-attached, or he’d have to snip it altogether and leave us without cable service. They’d need to get access to the far unit on the second floor of our building. From the window, I could see the dangling wire. It looked more like a great untied shoelace than a public hazard.

The usual occupants of the apartment on the second floor haven’t been around in weeks. They fled Jersey City during the early days of the crisis, and they haven’t even been back to pick up their mail. We’re the longest-tenured residents of this building, and by accident and attrition, we’ve come into possession of the master keychain. Hilary found it, put on her mask, and went straight downstairs. I followed after her.

The policemen were already inside. Our neighbor on the first floor let them in, and immediately fled back to the safety of his flat. We’ve all heard about the prevalence of coronavirus in the city police force, and although the main man was masked, that didn’t make me feel any better. His presence felt less like an affront than a scientific impossibility — just something that didn’t compute, and shouldn’t, couldn’t be, a rip in the fabric of expectation. Nobody but the residents have crossed our threshold since March ended. Have I unfit myself for visitors? If a friend were to come over, would it seem just as incongruous?

He could see we weren’t too happy. Through his mask, he told us that he wouldn’t come in any further if we didn’t want him to, but then he’d have to cut the wire. This felt like a bit of a backhanded threat, but by usual police standards, it wasn’t all that aggressive. We opened the second floor for him. One of his partners followed. I became conscious of their breaths, filtered through their masks, but still joining the rest of the air in our small stairwell. The equilibrium of microbes that we’d all carefully cultivated over the past few months was disturbed. What a ridiculous thing to be concerned about!, what an absurd thought to have, how inevitable it was, given everything that we’ve been through, that we’d be so preoccupied with the invisible.

Back upstairs in our flat, we graded ourselves on our crisis performance and found it wanting. Yes, we’d solved the problem and kept the cable on, but our alienated reaction to a stranger in the house alarmed us. For years, I was the guy who didn’t even want a front door; come on in, world, say hello, stay awhile, play a few games, touch all the surfaces. Now here I was with a mask on, my expression unreadable, bothered by the imposition of another masked face belonging to someone who was here to help. If we’d been bare-faced and able to gauge the intent behind our expressions, perhaps we would have acquitted ourselves better. Probably not, though. I’ve learned to fear my neighbor. For my own sake, and for the sake of the stranger, I need to unlearn that as soon as I can.

The doctor’s dilemma

Doctors don’t like to explain things. They know what they’re looking for, and there’s never any time to tarry. They might talk a little, but usually, they’d rather not be distracted from their incipient diagnosis by their patient. At first, I found this off-putting; honestly, I still do, but I think I understand it better now. They didn’t go to medical school to learn the Socratic method, and they don’t get graded on their bedside manners. A few of them develop it, but some really good ones never do. Hilary’s second surgeon is extraordinarily well regarded. If we ever were able to coax a complete sentence out of that guy, that would’ve been an unusually interactive day.

This means that doctors who do know how to communicate are now extraordinarily valuable — so valuable that I’ll gladly watch their narrowcasts wherever they happen to post them. By many orders of magnitude, they’ve been more helpful than the news. I’ve already written about Dr. John Campbell, who continues to put scary numbers in context without sugarcoating or sensationalizing anything; his daily dispatches have been a lifeline for me. YouTube made a deserving star out of the epidemiologist Kim Woo-Joo, whose late March interview on Asian Boss feels, in retrospect, like a turning point in the public understanding of transmission. Dr. Kim’s quiet but absolute incredulity at Western governments’ refusal to recommend mask-wearing was some desperately needed straight talk at a moment when Americans simply weren’t getting any. You’ll recall that in March, our authorities were, on the basis of nothing in particular, still assuring us that masks wouldn’t do any good. They were wrong, and the doctor was right. Eventually we’ve come around to his perspective. We should have deferred to him in the first place.

For his pains, and probably because of his skin color, too, Dr. Kim was accused of being in the thrall of the Chinese government. On its face, that seems like an absurd accusation to level at a South Korean scientist, but apophenia does create some crazy distortions in the minds of sufferers. Yesterday, Kim Woo-Joo went back on Asian Boss to dispel rumors, and address conspiracy theories head on. He made a persuasive case for a natural origin for the pandemic, and explained why the genetic sequence of the coronavirus ought to dispel any suspicion that it was lab-made. Dr. Kim likened misinformation-spreaders to climate change deniers, and, as scientists do, he stoically suggested that we should all be listening to scientists. Toward the end of the forty minute interview, he arrived at a moment of self-reflection, and he conceded that doctors can be abstruse. With the sort of absolute faith in the persuasive power of expertise that only good-hearted academics ever seem to possess, he told his interviewer that if we laid out the facts in the language of the common man, the public would come around.

Meanwhile, over on Dr. Campbell’s channel, the actual dynamics of common-man discourse in a media landscape dominated by click-driven tech companies was playing out. If you’ve followed my advice and watched Dr. Campbell’s videos, the YouTube algorithm has pushed you in the direction of wilder, more sensationalistic, and more partisan video channels — I’m not going to name any names, but you’ve seen the headlines by now. This is how social media companies work, and how they guarantee more time and attention spent on their sites: they start you off in the shallows, and then they let the rip currents of your own curiosity drag you out to sea. You think you’re going deeper, but really, you’re just farther from shore, and probably drowning. Anyway, Dr. Campbell’s comment section was overwhelmed by an army of enraged emigres from the audience of an irresponsible but very popular YouTube channel. Campbell’s offense: he’d reported on a New England Journal of Medicine study that had demonstrated that hydroxychloroquine was ineffective in the treatment of hospitalized coronavirus patients. He’d accidentally triggered a crowd who’ve maintained a near-religious devotion to the powers of hydroxychloroquine, even as the White House has, quite conspicuously, stopped talking about it. These self-appointed virologists threw stones at the study (useless, timed wrong, conducted improperly), the New England Journal of Medicine (a mouthpiece for the vaccine industry/big Pharma), epidemiologists in general (blind to the truth, haven’t watched Plandemic), and John Campbell (a dupe, or a plant, or worse).

Dr. Campbell was visibly stung by the criticism. It honestly broke my heart to see him on video the next day, attempting to direct his measured, reasoned, teacherly approach toward viewers who’ve got no interest in experiencing anything of the sort — people who’ve got it all figured out, and aren’t interested in changing their minds. Campbell, who has done nothing for months but make humble public service announcements, and who always posts verification links for everything he reports, tried his best to explain that he was merely relaying the findings of a medical journal. He was even generous enough to illustrate how hydroxycloroquine might interfere with the progress of the coronavirus: the chemical opens a gateway in the cell wall for zinc to penetrate, and the zinc blocks the pathogen from reproducing. Of course, he also had to point out that there’s no evidence yet that this works. I believe Dr. Campbell when he says that he’d like nothing better than for hydroxycloroquine to stop or slow the coronavirus; I feel the exact same way. But he’s not going to say it does until it’s proven that it does, because a real scientist never would.

I am not a scientist, but I am a science fan, and as a concerned fan, I’ve begun to wonder whether there is any room in the arena left for voices like Dr. Campbell’s, or Dr. Kim’s, or any other smart, compassionate medical worker who might demonstrate initiative and a similar facility with the camera. As the political argument rises in pitch, the good public health communicators are getting drowned out. The apparatus we’ve created — social media, I mean — is designed to suppress reasonable voices; it’s an outrage-fueled engine, and our crisis clicking has reinforced its efficacy. In March, social media provided platforms for reasonable people providing useful information about the pandemic. But once those first videos went viral, if you’ll pardon an expression that I hope we’ll now retire, the algorithms began pushing us toward outrageous expressions of similar ideas, baseless theories, casual calumny, whatever you’ve got. It’s been an accelerated version of the same phenomenon that has made rational discourse impossible and driven civil society into a ditch. If you’re going to use these services at all, please pick your spots wisely. Doctor’s orders, which in this case means it’s my order on behalf of the doctors.

Camera shy

I am not a forceful conversationalist. I’ve always preferred it if other people would take the lead. Whenever many other people are talking — especially when they’re talking loudly — I’ll never raise my volume and wedge myself into the discussion. I’ll be quiet, and wait it out, on the assumption that if anybody has any interest in what I think, they’ll ask me directly. Of course they never do, because human interaction doesn’t work like that. The person who is loudest doesn’t defer to those who are quieter than he is. As he sees it, our softness signals acquiescence to his superior wisdom. He just gets louder.

This has always made me useless in meetings. It makes me extra hopeless on video chat sessions. Zoom reinforces my feeling that nobody is listening to me when I talk — and that, chances are, they can’t even hear me. My voice is soft, and my manner isn’t imposing in the slightest. The camera makes me appear smaller and more fragile than I even imagine myself to be, and I think of myself as rather mousy to begin with. Part of the reason why people like me take to the stage to make music is because we know we’ll be able to avail ourselves of spotlights and amplification systems. We’ll be able to say what we need to say in a way that we can never manage to do in daily life. We can stop the world long enough to express something complicated.

Stages, alas, are off-limits to us right now. Video chats, and other forms of camera-based expression, are proliferating. Zoom demands that I cultivate social skills that are foreign to me. This makes me no different from millions of others who are learning, on the fly, new strategies of interaction on a planet where face-to-face contact is discouraged. But I know from experience that I don’t adapt very well. If I were a biological weapon, I’d never make it out of the lab.

Yesterday I was a participant on a video conference held by a city publication that I’ve done some writing for. Only I wasn’t; not really. A lot of talking happened, but none of it was done by me. During story meetings of all kinds, I’ve always had a hard time inserting myself. Zoom reduces me to a small spectacled face, in a box, in a Siberian corner of a crowded grid. Never am I able to speak without somebody else speaking at the same time, invariably louder that I do. The terrible truth is that I had nothing much to contribute anyway. The galleries are closed. I can’t encourage people to crowd into a basement club to hear music. I’ve already done the story about how arts organizations are coping with our new realities. The answer: they’re coping badly. How could it be anything other than that? When could we possibly expect a different answer?

Last year I made a decision to pay closer attention to the public culture of the city. Things that inspire me always compel me to write, and after months of nothing but worry, I felt like I could use a few good prompts. Beyond that, I wanted to find a way to engage with my neighbors in a way that wouldn’t be misunderstood, and on terms that I might establish myself. I imagine that desire is common among writers who aspire to overcome introverted dispositions and develop some measure of public spirit. Anyway, the important part was that it was working: arts organizers were amused and maybe even entertained by my reactions. It would be a wild overstatement to say that I’d gained anybody’s trust, because that takes a long time, and rightfully so. But I’d opened a conversation, and done it in a manner that was sustainable for me. It was a step in the right direction. With public culture shut down, I’m going to need to come up with an alternate strategy for taking another step. Feels like a doozy, does it not?

Hard numbers

It’s the middle of May. By the weekend, the death toll in Hudson County is likely to break the thousand mark. We count 16,975 cases. That’s a case fatality rate of 5.8%. Put another way: those with confirmed cases of the virus had a little better than a one in twenty chance of dying. If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons, or another game that uses a d20 system, you know that rolling a natural twenty isn’t all that uncommon. Critical hit, double damage.

In neighboring counties, the numbers are worse. Essex, the next county over, and the heart of African-American New Jersey, has confirmed slightly fewer cases but considerably more deaths. Their current case fatality rate is almost ten percent. Bergen County isn’t far behind. As we know, many of those deaths have happened in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. But many of them have not. Some of those who didn’t make it already had serious medical issues. But many of them did not.

Initially, I thought that those percentages would decrease as the crisis developed. More testing plus more medication plus recovery and acquisition of antibodies seemed to point toward a better ratio of survivors to non-survivors. This hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve watched the rate triple in eight weeks. Percentages have spiked on the other side of the Hudson, too. Even as more sick (and healthy) people have been checked, the grim numerator of mortalities has kept pace with the widening denominator of case confirmations.

Life during a public health crisis accustoms us to epidemiological language, and highlights some of our misconceptions. For instance, for weeks, I’ve been confusing case fatality rate with infection fatality rate, and that misunderstanding has skewed my apprehension of the dangers we face. We know that at least some — and possibly many — of the people infected with the coronavirus will remain asymptomatic. These people may never get tested, and may never even go to a doctor for a related complaint. They aren’t counted among the cases, and given current American priorities, it’s likely that they never will be.

Because of this, it’s been very difficult to calculate the infection fatality rate. Those who’ve tried to do it have been operating from incomplete information, and they’ve based their impressions on numbers from prior pandemics. That’s not a useless thing to do: precedent is important. It becomes dangerous, though, when the people doing the educated guesswork refuse to budge from their models. We all desperately want the case fatality rate to be low. Right now, though, we’re still listening to people who are absolutely determined to show that the casualty rates for this virus are equivalent to those associated with the flu. Some of this has been politically motivated — it’s tacit support for certain (mis)leaders who’ve pushed the line that this is just another kind of flu — and some of it is plain old wishcasting.

By now, you don’t have to be from New York or New Jersey to know that this is not just the flu. No flu has case fatality rates approaching ten per cent. Every year, there are thousands of cases of mild flu, too; people so afflicted don’t go to the doctor, either. We can better model infection fatality rates for the flu because we’ve had more than a century of experience with influenza. It was always a dicy thing to do to conflate the current outbreak with influenza, and anybody who is still doing it in May — anybody mentioning flu at all — is immediately suspect to me. The coronavirus is novel. It’s acting on us in ways that we still don’t understand. We ought to take the current case fatality rate seriously. We should stop reassuring ourselves that it’s going to be more palatable once the numbers are in. I fear it’s going to be awhile before numbers are friendly again.

The West Wing and the Devil

Network news producers never learn. Or maybe they do, and the implications of the lessons they’ve learned are just hard for me to stomach. A global pandemic ought to provide editors all the trending topics they could ever ask for. Nevertheless, the story continues to be reported through the frame of the 2020 elections, as if the virus is a poll indicator or a complicating factor in a political saga rather than a threat to my health and yours. The virus will seal the fate of Donald Trump, unless his supporters rally around him and sing him through in defiance of doctor’s orders, unless the elections are scrapped altogether, unless illness rips through the West Wing and settles this before we even get to the ballot box. Frankly, it’s beyond me why we’re supposed to care about Donald Trump at all in May 2020, as he has now spent weeks demonstrating his own irrelevance to the crisis. When he does talk about the virus, he has nothing of value to contribute to the discussion. In no way is this his story.

Should the President catch the virus and require medical intervention, that would change. That’d be a major global news item, as it was when Boris Johnson needed intensive care. I am pleased to see that Boris is doing better, even as nothing else about the guy makes me pleased in the slightest. Likewise, I don’t want to see anybody carried out of the White House in an ambulance. We can catalogue their misdeeds later; right now, we’ve got a foreign invader to stop. I cringed when I saw the pictures of an unmasked Vice President — not because of any love for a politician who’d consider me a deviant, but because he’d become a danger to the people around him, and thereby pushing humanity closer to a brink that is approaching with alarming speed. You may believe that that’s all he’s ever done. It shouldn’t matter. In the showdown between a man and a virus, we cannot ever afford to be rooting for the virus. We’ve got to be on the side of the men, and yes, that includes those men who are, through their own idiotic behavior, advancing the spread of the pathogen. No matter how dumb they seem, and how hostile they are, and how vigorously they wave their Confederate flags, we have to hope that they don’t become hosts and spreaders. Otherwise we further jeopardize those of us who aren’t behaving like clowns. Every new infection in every fresh pair of lungs makes it that much harder to suppress the virus and rebuild our society.

Yet the networks are preying, and hard, on our sense of poetic justice. The crows are out on the White House lawn, and they’re hunting for any scrap of news that suggests that people close to the President are infected. The West Wing outbreak has been a lead story for days, even as its saliency to the crisis is negligible. I can feel the tug, too. It would indeed be ironic if those who minimized the risks of the coronavirus were to become seriously sick. Punishment visited on those whose inaction and denialism deepened the crisis would be a satisfying cinematic twist, even if it’s too on-the-nose to be called literary. And that is exactly how this news item has been subtly pushed: we’re shown fresh evidence of the administration’s incoherence, asked again to review the death count, reminded of the President’s habitual suppression of facts, and invited to wonder whether he’s covering up an outbreak that’s happening right under his nose. Should it come for him, he’d have nobody to blame but himself, right? There is something Biblical about that. But this story is not in the Bible. It’s written on the pages of newspapers, and its author is, undeniably, the Devil.

For those of you who are resolutely secular, “the Devil” is a shorthand term that some religious people use to describe the voice that activates the blackest parts of our hearts. You may call it something else; I’m a poetry fan and a C.S. Lewis reader, and I find that “the Devil” does the job best. The Devil finds righteous vengeance an indispensable tool. If we can all agree (and we don’t, but enough of us do) that the President is responsible for a great measure of the suffering that Americans are currently feeling, then we might believe that our desire to see the President brought low by a microbe is justifiable. You might check your newsfeed and feel, on some not-very-deep level, disappointment at your discovery that the President and his various cronies remain uninfected by a virus that has killed tens of thousands. This is the latest version of the humiliation drive that sent everybody to the social networks to cheer on Robert Mueller, or, rather, the imaginary version of Mueller the Avenger that the networks planted in the minds of the gullible. As all retribution fantasies do, that ended badly. The difference now is that we’re not dealing with a metaphorical virus of criminal behavior. We’re dealing with an actual virus. And the more we cheer for it to afflict our enemies, whether perceived or actual, the harder it is going to be for us to act with the unity that is our only way out of the miasmal swamp.

You may see Donald Trump as the main propagator of the divisions that stand in the way of a national plan. Certainly he has been handy with the kerosene, and he’s thrown it around liberally. But with apologies to Billy Joel, he didn’t start the fire. If I have beef, it’s got to be with the sixty three million Americans who handed the President the power to do the things that he does, and who will almost certainly move in November to keep that power in his hands. I’m under no illusions about how those people would treat me if they could. But as a human being with a respiratory system, it gets me worse than nowhere to wish that the virus would mess up their towns, and their lives, instead of mine. Infectious disease doesn’t work like that. Right now, the species is facing a common threat, and in a way, that’s been clarifying — it’s made our moral choices a little starker, and a little easier to read. For years, we haven’t wanted to reduce our differences. A pathogenic exigency has done that social work for us. We just need to wake up and recognize: if you get it, that means it’s more likely that I get it, no matter who you are. Even if you’re a militiaman. Even if you’re the President of the United States.

Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

Close to home.

The head of the Mill Creek Marsh Trail is in a Kohl’s parking lot. I’d call that peak Jersey, if everything else about Jersey wasn’t also peak Jersey; we sustain long peaks here. It’s also telling that no matter how far you press into the swamp, you’ll never lose sight of the Turnpike or the Secaucus utilities complex. This is the back half of Hudson County: the part with the brackish water and the flat big-box stores, the plumbing, the power-generation, and the transport. I’ve always found it a rewarding place to explore.

Although I knew it was there for many years, I’d never been to the Mill Creek complex of footpaths. That’s mostly because the Marsh Trail is difficult to reach by bicycle. To get to the Kohl’s and the Marsh Trail, you’ve got to contrive a way of crossing Route 3 and Route 495, which is a dicy thing to do even if you’re in a car. Technically, Secaucus shares a border with Jersey City, but it’s a doozy, a boundary reinforced by the swamps, the gooey Penhorn Creek, the great industrial car-parks and repositories of truckloads of stuff, the Fedex and Goya complexes, and the infamous Highway 1-9, the most unforgiving stretch of road in the galaxy. If I were a marsh bird, I imagine it would be a snap to get from the reedy banks of the Hudson to the mud flats on the Hackensack. Traveling to Secaucus reminds me that I don’t have wings.

It also reinforces my feelings of vulnerability. Over the past few months, busy as it’s been with talk of quarantines and border-crossings, and aspersions cast in our direction by loudmouth governors who don’t want Jersey people infecting their states, it’s occurred to me, many times, that it would be a simple thing to isolate Jersey City. All the authorities would have to do is close a couple of bridges and barricade a couple of roads. We’d never get out.

Secaucus seemed like a smart answer to the questions posed by the day yesterday: sun out and sixty degrees, some restrictions relaxed, Jersey City parks likely jammed, Hilary’s little green car waiting on the street, undriven and unloved for two long weeks. We didn’t want to travel too far; Mill Creek, at fifteen minutes away, felt reasonable. George had sent a good article by a Massachusetts doctor that broadly reinforced many of the points made by Jonathan Kay and Muge Cevik, and further suggested that our chances of catching the coronavirus from a passerby on a trail was low. A brush up against a stranger on a path through the reeds might not necessarily be the end of us.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry. Besides the birds and the bugs, most of the trails through the marshes were blissfully empty. We passed a few other people on the red gravel pathways, many of whom were walking dogs or watching birds or just stretching their legs after long weeks indoors, but nearly everybody was masked, and absolutely everybody took the distancing suggestions seriously. One of the things that has infuriated me about the discourse I’ve heard from distant quarters is the implication that Hudson County is under a fascist lockdown — that we’ve had masks put on our unwilling faces by government fiat, and robots are prying us apart. This couldn’t be more wrong. We are voluntarily taking steps to avoid hurting our neighbors. For us, it’s never been a question of individual liberties. Nobody has had to twist our arms. We’ve just needed to be properly informed. We’ve taken the initiative to protect what we’ve got, and we’ll continue to do so, even if the authorities attempt to reopen prematurely. We would like to get back to the life we knew as soon as we can, because it was one well worth living. Even as my embarrassment about being an American has grown, I feel a great upwelling of New Jersey pride. I didn’t think we’d show as much dignity and restraint as we have. I was wrong to doubt my neighbors. Mill Creek Marsh Trail was not policed, but we all knew what to do, and what not to do.

We were there to take in the scenery, and nobody was going to be the ruin of anybody else’s day. Imagine a latticework of narrow, tree-lined paths through mud flats dotted with dried tree stumps; then, imagine the New Jersey Turnpike right over the barrier of reeds. Parts of the landscape were flat and greasy as a cookie sheet, while other parts were undulations of grass and moss. The trails and footbridges aren’t the maze that they seem to be at first, so even if a visitor couldn’t orient herself by the highway, she’d never get lost. Birds were general. I saw, among other little fellows, a finch so yellow I thought it had been spray-painted, a few egrets with their webbed feet in the shallows, and a mother duck leading a line of ducklings from the mud to a brackish rivulet. They all looked happier in the water.

On the way back, signs on 1-9 continued to warn us off the road. Flatten the curve, not your tire, we were told, and that seemed like a bit more of a threat than I wanted to encounter. We get the picture. We’ll take our excursions sparingly, and maybe even responsibly. At the big box restaurants, patrons queued up in the parking lots, six feet apart, to pick up Mother’s Day dinner. Scores of masked people waited in their cars in front of the Olive Garden for their names to be called; they’d go and get what they came for, as gingerly as they could, and return home to their families. Everybody still needs to celebrate. We’re doing it as cautiously as we can. But we’re doing it.

Inches

The last time I pressed the flesh, it was March 6. That was a Jersey City Friday, there was fear in the air, and arts events happening all over town. It was a cold and rainy night, but we went out anyway: we’d arrive at a gallery, greet the artist and the owner, shake hands, and apply sanitizer liberally afterward. We were still acting on the popular assumption that the main form of transmission was unwashed hands. It occurred to me that what we were doing was a risk, but I couldn’t see the full measure of what was coming. I figured if I smeared us both in Purell, we’d be able to continue going to shows all spring.

By March 10, that assumption looked dubious. A week later, the doors to the galleries and clubs were closed, and reality began to bite. It occurred to all of us that that Jersey City Friday might be the last of its kind for a long time. I’ve tried to hang on to the memory of that night, and given the circumstances, it’s remained sharp in my mind — like my recollection of the contours of the calm on the morning before the planes hit the towers. I can pinpoint the exact locations of each painting on the wall at the Hamlet Manzueta retrospective show at the Art House; I remember the specific hors d’oeuvres they were serving in the atrium of the Majestic Condominiums; I can reconstitute my footwork as I tried to squeeze into a crowded Village West Gallery for a poetry reading. I remember the streetlight streaks in the puddles of rain on the Newark Avenue sidewalks. I remember the unmasked faces of my neighbors.

Mostly, though, I remember a show at the SMUSH Gallery in McGinley Square. “īîìïíinches” felt like it was primarily motivated by a desire to express an idiosyncratic personality — in this case, the personality of a woman named Myssi Robinson, who is a dancer as well as a painter and a weird-object-designer. Robinson struck me as quintessential Hudson County artist working in the local post-industrial style, gluing together paper and rope and painted what-is-its at funny, aesthetically-pleasing angles, sprinkling glitter liberally, but leaving plenty of serrated edges. SMUSH gave her the entire space to decorate, and she made the most of that latitude. She covered one wall with black-and-white triangles as ready for business as any saw-teeth; on another, she draped bunting made of yellow plastic sheets. Right in the middle of the room, Robinson hung a portal (her word) to another dimension, or at least an experience uncommon on a wet, cold Jersey City night. This was a circle of floor to ceiling plastic tubes with a mirror on top. We were invited to walk in to the ring of darkness, look up, and allow the artist to take our picture.

Estranged by distance, distorted by the quick change in perception, the occupant of the portal was confronted by an image of herself. Like so much of “īîìïíinches”, it seemed to be a playful comment on vanity — one made by a person accustomed to being watched. Many of the objects in the show, on closer inspection, evoked women’s fashion: a polka-dot pattern with a loop in the shape of a handbag handle, waves of plastic suggestive of a party dress, smeared smiley-faces, some scribbled over with nail polish, beaming back like girls’ reflections in the too-bright circles at the cosmetics counter. Myssi Robinson wrought a hat from photocopies and braided industrial rope, and cupped plastic mirrored squares in red netting. These all felt like shards of feminine experience, strips torn from Glamour and reassembled, the residue of the immense energy that self-presentation requires. Everything in the show was pretty but barbed, lively, smart, exciting and impertinent, like an outfit held together by the confidence of its wearer.

The immersive quality of the “īîìïíinches” show can’t be translated to the Internet. But Myssi Robinson, and Katelyn Halpern, the curator and owner of SMUSH, want you to see the artworks anyway. Halpern, who is always very theorized about everything she does, was skeptical of online presentation at first; she felt that the whole point of a space like SMUSH is in-person interaction. Necessity has forced her to adjust. “īîìïíinches” is, I think, the first online exhibit she’s ever put together, and I’m glad she’s done it. Taken one at a time in a slideshow, Myssi Robinson’s objects still have plenty of stories to tell. The voice may not be as loud as it would have been if you’d encountered it on the first of March, but you can still hear the artist talking, and I’m grateful to Katelyn Halpern for putting aside her reservations and giving Myssi Robinson the amplification.

Protocols, revisited

This page has been pretty grim. I understand why a few people who check it every day were surprised by yesterday’s post. One very good friend of mine even accused me of optimism. I told him that he knew me better than that. Nothing fundamental has changed: I still believe that American authorities have been unwise and inattentive. Sending people back to work feels greedy and premature to me. There are many scary miles to travel.

Yet the optimism is real, and it’s been growing ever since the calendar turned to May. My brightened outlook doesn’t have much to do with what’s happening in America: it’s based on the qualified success of other countries that have managed to slow the advance of the coronavirus. The equilibrium they’ve reached in Brisbane and Taipei might fall apart, but the mere fact that they’ve been able to hold the monster at bay suggests to me that the fight can be won. We don’t need to put our entire population at risk in a chase for herd immunity that might be a fantasy anyway. We can figure out how the pathogen spreads, and proceed accordingly; we can discover what not to do, and we can try not to do those things.

To achieve that sort of operational clarity, we need to work with a real transmission model. For eight frustrating weeks of shutdown, we haven’t had one. This has forced every individual to cobble together a private model based on anecdotes, prejudices, common sense, and superstition. Should I go to a show? Can I sit in the park? Do I need to disinfect my mail? Could I get it from my neighbor’s children? When they cough upstairs, will the virus work its way down through the vents? Is it so pervasive that there’s no way to stop it; should we resign ourselves to the inevitability of infection? In the absence of guidance, we fended for ourselves. Public decisionmakers did too. Their initial containment strategies were motivated by panic, precedent, and guesswork. Lockdowns were a crude means of coping with our mass ignorance: we don’t know how this is getting around, but it certainly is, so we’d better prohibit as much as possible.

Part of the reason why we haven’t been able to get a reliable transmission model together was our uncertainly about the size and concentration of the infectious dose. This remains true: we still don’t know how much coronavirus we’d need to be exposed to in order to become carriers. Scare articles about virus particles found tucked away in corners, or persisting on cardboard boxes, or hanging in the air after a jogger runs by are stupendously unhelpful. What we really need to know is whether those stray particles are present in sufficient quantities to infect us; if they aren’t, they’re just part of the microbial background noise that our systems encounter daily. There’s been reason to suspect that higher concentrations of virus — like those that healthcare workers have been coping with — prompt a more severe version of the sickness. Some people have guessed that chance encounters with low levels of virus lead to asymptomatic cases. Without contact tracing, there’s no way to know.

Our uncertainty has led directly to the circulation of shaky models. Among the most popular — and I know you’ve seen them — are the great animated, colored billows of cloud-particles from the lungs of passersby in stores, on bicycles, at parties, in offices. Because these images conflate the dynamics of respiration with the trajectory of infection, they’re misleading. We can’t be afraid of sharing air with other beings, because it’s all one planet, and no private supply is possible. We need to know how to exist in the biosphere, and how to interact with our fellow creatures, without worrying about getting them sick.

After too long in the dark, a preliminary transmission model is beginning to coalesce. We’re starting to get a picture of how this pathogen gets around, and how we might reorganize our activities to lessen a lethal threat that we’re going to be living with for a long time. The twenty-two threaded tweets by Dr. Cevik contain links to studies that all point in the same direction: in order to thrive, this virus requires close and prolonged contact between humans. This research reinforces the hypothetical models put together by some amateurs, including Quillette editor Jonathan Kay. We’re getting a profile of a serious and highly infectious respiratory illness, that, despite its ferocity, can be slowed down if we wear masks in public to block large droplets, maintain social distance, ventilate indoor spaces, reimagine workplaces before reopening them, get out in the sunshine when we can, and behave responsibly while we’re there.

No contact tracing strategy can ever be complete, and no model of transmission can account for every vector. The best we can do is get a sense of probabilities, and behave accordingly. My protocol isn’t changing: I’m less worried about runners than I was a week ago, and that’s a relief, but I’m still going to cross the street when I see one coming. I won’t be going anywhere without a mask and a plan to dodge crowds and close contact. Basically, I’ll pretend that I’m Taiwanese, and I encourage all Americans, and particularly American leaders, to do likewise. In Taiwan, they’ve taken the pathogen for what it is, rather than fear it for what it isn’t, and their application of prudent science to a biological problem has led to dramatically better outcomes than what we’ve been getting in the States. What prudent science tells us is that we aren’t helpless. We don’t have to build our policy around the lethal misconception that the virus will get us and there’s nothing to be done, so we may as well send everybody back to the meat-packing plant. There are ameliorative options for us, and those remain on the table, no matter how many Americans have been infected. The more tracing we do, the clearer those options become. And that is, I fear, why certain foolish Americans don’t want us to do the tracing.