Just what more can go wrong in 2020?

Here we are a full six months into the year, and the surge of record-breaking goes unabated.

Racist police brutality is unmasked nationwide, along with the violent suppression of peaceful protests and free speech.

Russian bounties on American soldiers goes unchallenged in the White House.

Wall Street is living in a disconnect with the economy in general while new Covid-19 cases and deaths soar to their highest levels yet – and promise to rocket quickly.

The widespread resistance to public health measures, and then their lifting, threatens to turns the economic hit of the earlier self-quarantining into a wasted expense. Now brace for the truly hard impact when we see what a full outbreak adds up to in costs, including lifetime chronic health problems for many survivors.

And we thought toilet paper and chicken or pork shortages were big?

Already, a wave of evictions is hitting renters who suffered from the mandatory unemployment in April and May. Where can they go? Looks like a lot of vacancies for landlords, too, not that they get any sympathy.

Here where I live, state government revenue is down 20 percent. The next budget round will be a bloodbath.

Who knows what’s going to happen to the crucial election season. National conventions? Door-to-door campaigning? Rallies?

Gee, remember the Senate’s so-called trial of Trump on impeachment charges back in February?

Oh, yes, drought or near-drought in June.

Curing my lifetime of writing headlines, I often felt I’d already seen everything. Nothing could brace me for this.

And now there’s an outbreak of rabbit Ebola, fatal in 80 percent of the cases. Yes, that’s what they’re calling it. Seriously. Wild or domestic, they’re doomed. Bunnies!

Forget the MAGA hats, it’s time for the sackcloth and ashes, friends. We need to repent and be saved. How about some true leadership, based on hard facts and courage?

Happy Independence Day, everyone.

Ten ways faith communities are being hit hard

The Covid-19 shutdowns are reminding many of us how much of religious practice involves community interaction.

Yes, personal practice is also essential – we could easily build a list of ten examples – but it blossoms and bears fruit in our interactions.

Here are ten ways those are being impacted by coronavirus.

  1. Communal worship. It’s a coming together in celebrating and compassion. For now, we’re coping with a substitute, one without the touches of shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. We’re not even in the same room.
  2. Streaming our services. Across congregations, we’re finding this to be a mixed bag. It’s definitely not the same as being together in person, but members who live at a distance or recovering from illness or suffering chronic debilitating conditions are welcoming the opportunity to be better connected again. Attendance for morning vespers or the like is also up.
  3. Pastoral visits. Hospitals, especially. Pastors, priests, ministers, rabbis, and other leaders deeply miss being able to comfort those in pain or be with those who are dying, especially.
  4. Funerals and memorial services. On hold, when family and friends could feel the support the most.
  5. Weddings. Baptisms, too?
  6. Choirs. It’s more than just making harmony together, though you do come to feel a special kinship with your fellow singers.
  7. Committees. OK, we are continuing via Zoom, maybe more than ever. But it’s more awkward, and I miss sharing the snacks.
  8. Study groups. This can be done online, but it’s less personally revealing and interactive.
  9. Church suppers and soup kitchens. There’s a reason that Jesus and the disciples are always eating in the New Testament. As one rabbi I know explains, it’s because they were Jewish. Let’s honor our connections through food, when we can.
  10. Festivals and other fundraisers. These require advance planning and working together. Again, food’s often involved and sometimes ethnic identities, too. My favorite ones feature dancing, and that leads to joining hands.

I do want to mention a renewed appreciation for the medieval tradition of anchorites, women who lived in isolation in the church tower itself and prayed unceasingly for the members’ well-being. These days, their writings seem especially meaningful.

OK, there’s no bingo on my list. What else am I missing?

And now, gardening is all the rage

In this time of social distancing and shelter-in-place, many of us would go stir crazy if we couldn’t get out for long walks. Seeing so many other people also out strolling – with or without their dogs – has been a bright side of our lives lately.

Where we live, a highlight of those treks has often come in checking out others’ gardens, landscaping, and flowerbeds. I don’t know about you who live in apartment complexes or high-rise developments, but I’m curious. Maybe something out on the deck, if you have one?

These days, I’m seeing a lot of raised garden beds going in. Fresh wood, reminding me of the time we were just getting started here. (Some of my earliest posts told of the reasons for raised beds when dealing with northern New England’s clay soils.) You’ve no doubt heard the stories of folks who have recently decided to grow their own food in the face of Covid-19.  Maybe you’re even one of them. Part of it, of course, is a concern about breakdowns in our food-supply system or even long lines just to enter the supermarket. Another might even be boredom, as in give me something new to do. From questions we’ve been getting from neighbors and passers-by, they’re really green and in for a lot of surprises, some of them harsh disappointment but a few real treats, too.

We could see this coming when some of our favorite seed catalogs announced they were running out of supplies and would not be selling to new customers; they felt it crucial to serve their longstanding commercial growers first and foremost, followed by their devoted regulars. Fair enough, that’s long-term loyalty. At least, seasoned as we are, we had our orders well in hand by mid-February.

As you know, gardening is a staple of the merry-go-round here at the Barn, but my posts aren’t the detailed advice kind for beginners – more just a taste of the experience, no pun intended. I’m hoping many of the neophytes will discover those of you who post expertly on growing and harvesting. You’re such an encouragement, truly.

Maybe we’ll get them in for the long haul, too, when it comes to things like composting (remember, those two cute bunnies you’ve been seeing featured here are big helps on that front … plus they prompt me to weed daily, just to keep them supplied in greens, which they then convert into their little composter pellets).

And, I should note, we just installed a new colony in our beehive and are anxiously waiting to see it the queen takes hold. If all goes well, our honeybees will be tending pollen in gardens in a radius of up to five miles.

Should we warn people what a few tomato plants can lead to?

A generic side to Dover’s downtown transformation

As I’ve looked with delight at the renaissance of my small city’s downtown, one modeled in part on Jane Jacobs’ then revolutionary attack on urban renewal back in the ’50s, I am a bit bothered by how much of it is now based on a commercial cookie-cutter concept known as mid-rises – five-story stick-frame construction above a steel-frame pedestal that’s then given a brick or similar exterior facing.

It’s happening all over the country, actually, and not just in the heart of a city, either. Even here in Dover, we’re seeing something similar happening about a mile south of downtown as an over 50s-something neighborhood called Pointe Place with rents that astound me. Who can afford it? Some retirees, apparently. It’s a downtown within a doughnut, in effect. You can’t really walk there from anywhere else.

Of course, the Covid-19 pall casts a big shadow over these developments, but some observers say it might encourage more people to move from big cities to smaller communities like ours. We’ll have to be patient and see what actually unfolds.

As I’ve argued here in various forms, I’d rather have a real city center abutting organic neighborhoods, one with a funky fringe of mixed-use buildings, unlike apartment complexes surrounded by parking lots along the major highways or shopping strips.

What we definitely have here in Dover is the attraction of a river that rises and falls with the tide, as well as the historic mills once renowned for their calico and now serving as entrepreneurial incubators and housing.

Call it atmosphere and scale.

~*~

As Dover’s emerged as New Hampshire’s fastest growing city, the bulk of the new downtown residents are presumably singles and child-free couples, either young professionals or older folks who want the amenities of living close to restaurants, parks, and public events.

The retail and professional rentals are a larger concern, though, especially as many small merchants find themselves at a disadvantage against Amazon. Take the local hobby shop as an example. And that’s even before the bigger threat of coronavirus hit the entire economy.

Even so, these projects haven’t been on hold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The new Orpheum takes shape downtown, matching the height of the old Masonic building to its east and the old Strafford Bank across from that. The spire at top left is city hall, a block away from the back of the new building in what was previously a parking lot.
The Robbins Block storefronts are now gone and a five-story Orpheum is rising in their place. The hardware store, lower right, is still there. From the top left are the library, community center, and district court.

The old block may look charming in the photo, but the buildings were rundown and unwelcoming to pedestrians, as was the sprawling parking lot behind them. There was also a traffic bottleneck that’s being eliminated.

Zoom? Ten takes on group meetings online

By now, you’ve probably had your fill of Zoom or GoToMeeting or Skype. (Any others I haven’t heard of?) They’ve become inescapable, it seems, and essential.

Here are ten takes from my end.

  1. We don’t look good, folks. Everybody looks older. More wrinkled. Distorted, too. (There are reasons actors use so much makeup!)
  2. We spend too much time on trying to figure out what we’re doing. It’s not just the agenda, but mostly about getting settled, figuring out who’s “here,” and tweaking our settings. It’s a real problem when we have only 40 minutes total.
  3. Tech confusion. Are you muted or not, why isn’t this or that working, that sort of thing.
  4. Remembering to cover or uncover the camera
  5. We sound wobbly. That, and all the awkward pauses and unintentional interruptions. Oh, yes, and all the ambient noise if a group is mostly unmuted.
  6. The moderator is very important. Though trying to chair a meeting and simultaneously man the controls is a bit much. We really need a “producer” for that.
  7. Selecting who’s to speak next. Do we raise a hand to the camera or press the little hand button instead? How about the Chat function? Are we unmuted? This gets difficult once the group gets bigger than a handful and the moderator has to keep scanning the panels that were offscreen.
  8. We get to “visit” in others’ homes. Often, the scene is an individual’s dining area or study, but we’ve also been outdoors on a porch and down in the cellar (which looked and sounded more like an Apollo space mission). It’s been fun seeing other sides of our friends this way, though often the lighting’s not so hot. (See Point 1.)
  9. Remembering to “attend.” Or to send the invitation out to all in time. Somehow, we’re losing track of time, even the day of the week, in this self-isolation.
  10. Doesn’t work as well on smart phones or tablets. No, you really do need a laptop, PC, or large screen for optimal control.

What stands out from your encounters?

Greetings from the bunker

Unlike many journalists, who lust after the scoop – to be hailed as the first to the punch in revealing the newest surprise in a hot ongoing drama, especially – I preferred to wait for the dust to settle a bit so we could discern the bigger picture. Yes, I was still competitive, but too often all the latest clamor struck me as confusion. What’s REALLY going on here, rather than who’s speaking the loudest or all that, is what I wanted to hear.

(Actually, with the presence of ’round-the-clock cable news and Internet connections, it’s gotten much worse. Just look at how the current resident of the White House stirs up something fresh before the outrage of his last errant lunacy can even sink in.)

The Covid-19 situation is turning into something similar. Who can keep up with the story? There are so many elements, not just the latest numbers or locations.

We’re definitely facing some ominous long-term impacts here, and we’re not getting much clarity yet.

A big exception has been voices like the Atlantic, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post.

~*~

For me, many of the biggest issues emerge around the question:

Who’s going to pay for this?

Wall Street still hasn’t factored in the debt load, unless maybe as inflation. Make that HUGE debt load and HUGE inflation, unless the wealthiest five percent of the population come to the rescue, whether they want to or not. We can look at their gains via tax cuts as longterm loans to be repaid royally now.

As a few of the clairvoyants have noted, many of the problems now emerging have been long simmering and coronavirus is merely bringing them to the fore.

Student debt loan would be one, especially if bankruptcies become widespread.

The future of retailing would be another. And the entire medical system.

The lack of antitrust action in the face of cable operators, Amazon, Walmart, and the like would be yet another.

We get glimmers here and there, but little in the way of big pictures, which are ominous.

As one voice emphasized, we do have socialization in America, but not for the people. We’ve privatized profits while socializing risks for big corporations. That’s not real capitalism. Just watch as they line up for a bailout at the public trough. Keep an eye especially on the ones laying off people and closing plants while taking the aid for themselves and their overpaid top executives. How about tying any aid to an exchange of stock placed in public trust funds, for starters?

By the way, is anyone else aghast at the Donald’s insistence on putting his signature on those relief checks, as if he’s paying out of his own pocket? Such bombast!

Well, we can’t go out to dine, but we can get an early start on grilling in the Smoking Garden beside the barn. Cheers!

~*~

One canary-in-the-mine-shaft question of mine asks:

How will performing arts organizations survive this shutdown?

For me, they’re essential components to society. The artists have trained all their lives for what are often marginal wages, and the supportive structures are not easily created. Rebuilding audiences will not be easy, especially in the face of damaged incomes in general. Yet they’re crucial to the fabric of civilized community.

Unlike sports, the arts don’t have huge advertising revenues. They reflect a number of similar services that make our communities better places to live, no matter how modest their seeming place in the overall scene. We need to make note of them, too, and redress the suffering.

~*~

Is anyone else watching the impact as Covid-19 spreads from the big cities into the suburbs and rural areas – that is, from urban (which also translates as black and immigrant and blue) into red-district Trump country? The virus is no longer a safe distance from “them,” or what was originally dismissed as a liberal hoax to tarnish their cult leader, and instead clearly appearing as a cruel reality. We’re back to the already fragile state of health care in rural America, for starters.

~*~

The fact is, at the rate Covid-19 cases were initially multiplying, we could have had 40 million infected people by Easter, had we not gone into quarantine. As I almost quipped back then:

How would the nation’s funeral industry cope with an extra 450,000 corpses?

As one friend said

It’s like we’re living with no destination. We can go out for a walk but can’t stop casually at the store or the library or café. Maybe wave to neighbors through a window.

To call what we’re doing “monastic” misses the mark. After all, monks live in communities, working and praying together. And being single, as he is, still doesn’t mean monkish.

We can’t hug or even touch anybody outside of our household, not if we’re maintaining quarantine.

Humans are social animals, after all.

At the moment, the one thing that makes sense doing is prayer.

Ten things to look forward to in ‘normal’

To put the U.S. coronavirus crisis in perspective, consider that its toll has surpassed the 58,220 deaths of American servicemen in the Vietnam war. And to think, it would have been much worse if we hadn’t hunkered down, even as the virus continues to multiply.

Yes, I know it’s premature to expect our social lives to be returning to “normal” anytime soon, but let’s keep the hope alive.

Here are ten things I’ll say we’re missing.

  1. Worship. Gathering together, not just solo meditation. Followed by hugs and handshakes. Even weddings and funerals are on hold. Don’t overlook regional board meetings, annual sessions, community suppers, or big festivals, either.
  2. Live public events. Let’s start with concerts, theater, dancing and dance, sports of all sorts, both as players and fans. Add festivals, graduations, political rallies, public lectures, governmental meetings. The things that bring us together as a community.
  3. Swimming and the gym. For me, this includes the daily banter with fellow swimmers I’ve come to know and the lifeguards, too. It’s like workout partners and trainers at the gym, so I’ve heard. Long walks just aren’t the same.
  4. Eating out and meeting for a drink. Let’s throw in catching up with a friend over a cup of cappuccino or stopping off somewhere while off on that stroll. A phone call is a poor substitute.
  5. Shopping. Yes, we can still go to the grocery (kind of), but many other places are closed. As for yard sales, where we find some of our best stuff without them? I’ll put banking in person here, as in being able to walk into the lobby.
  6. Beaches, parks, playgrounds. I couldn’t even harvest seaweed for garden mulch this year. Seriously.
  7. Health care and grooming. How much can we put on hold? OK, I don’t need a barber these days, but my cardiologist would like some blood work at the lab and our rabbits need their nails trimmed, which has been happening at the high school’s animal sciences center, or was.
  8. Travel and transport. As I posted about not going to Boston recently or noting friends stuck without cars (and we can’t really offer them rides, either). Add to that airlines, not that I was planning on flying. But we really would like to get away from the house for a weekend breather.
  9. Libraries and museums. Special sanctuaries.
  10. Community care. Things like the soup kitchen and fundraisers. And places with public restrooms when I’m out on those long walks.

Schools I’ll set aside as a whole special category.

What are you especially missing these days?

 

Does Covid-19 spell the death of local newspapers, too?

Jack Shafer of Politico magazine recently aired his argument against including newspapers in stimulus aid for companies hurt by what he calls the coronavirus apocalypse. As his title says, “Don’t waste stimulus money on newspapers. You wouldn’t put a dead man on a ventilator, would you?”

It’s a harsh assessment, coming not from a right-wing fanatic but someone who values the experience of reading the news on paper. He knows all too well the precarious state of the news industry even before the Covid-19 devastation, and I hate to admit I have to agree with him.

If you want to see my take on some of the deep systemic financial problems, just turn to my novel Hometown News, available as an ebook.

For a little perspective, you have to realize you can’t even purchase blank newsprint for the cost of your local paper, and that’s without anything on it or delivery to your doorstep or favorite store or the box on the corner.

Shafer is not talking about the handful of national papers that are thriving, thanks to a surge of online subscribers during the Trump nightmare. He’s talking about the local papers across the country, many of them now owned by hedge funds and similar short-view gaming investors. The kind of enterprise that has gone from family ownership with roots in the community to a global conglomerate that sees money in liquidation, as in who-are-you-all-anyway and why-do-you-matter when it comes to the locals.

Well, with oil companies lining up for relief aid, newspapers definitely should be higher on the list. But I digress.

In some ways, the papers are a canary in the mine shaft, or a dinosaur looking into the eyes of an approaching train, if you care to mix metaphors. Remember what happened to the railroads, after all, when the Interstates were built … with public money. Again, I digress.

The biggest question for me is what happens to local communities if and/or when the local papers expire.

First, of course, is that the public loses an essential watchdog on grassroots level politics. Believe me, local officials act differently when they know they’re under scrutiny. It will cost you dearly when they’re not.

Covering their meetings and the impact takes time, knowledge, ability, and courage. If you’re simply blogging in your spare time, you can be bullied or miss the follow-up phone calls. ‘Nuff said there. We’re facing a threat to ground-level democracy, OK? How many of us can really afford a lawyer?

Second, though, is the loss of local identity. I think most newspapers have fallen down here, failing to raise distinct columnists you just have to read first thing in the morning, but that’s not the only problem. How important is your neighborhood and the general area to you, anyway? Do you even know your neighbors?

A third problem involves the local economy. For one thing, there’s been a huge shift in local retailing, from mom-and-pop stores to the big-box intruders at the mall or Miracle Mile and then online, as in Amazon. The mom-and-pops are the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Those glossy inserts pay next to diddly. And when’s the last time you saw anything from that monster Amazon or even Craig’s list, which is killing the classifieds?

The obvious shift would be from on-paper publication altogether to online presence only, but no newspapers have figured out how to manage this. It requires subscriber-paid content. Web users are way too used to getting everything for free.

By the way, I hope television and radio are not included in the assistance packages. Yes, they, too, are suffering loss of ad revenue and audience. Rotsaluck. Their news coverage, meanwhile,  often rips off a lot of newspaper stories and then act as if they actually had reporters there. Who will take up the slack? Again, rotsaluck.

Which leads me to one more thought. Sports radio. That once hot-in-the-ratings screaming format that pushed broadcasting from music to talk and then to professional, mostly, athletics – with regional loyalties and identity. What’s happening there, now that nobody’s playing?

Where are you getting your community news?

Crisis ventilation added

Our local hospital, Wentworth-Douglass, is now a subsidiary of Boston’s famed Mass General, even though we’re in New Hampshire.

When coronavirus alert went into effect, these eerie additions soon showed up facing busy Central Avenue. Who knows how long they’ll remain.

These exhaust tubes look like something out of science fiction. My guess is that they’re to create additional isolated intensive care units.
And then these two appeared a week or so later.